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Sean William Scott

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Gays Behaving Badly and the Openly Closeted 

Gay men and their public and private behavior appears to be of interest to the entertainment media again lately. The two most blatant examples are an aging former teen idol being caught with his trousers down in public and an aging former teen idol coming out in an attempt to salvage his career.

George Michael being caught cruising for sex in a public park is interesting from a sociological standpoint because, on a certain level, it's very anachronistic behavior. Furtive tea-room and park trysting is largely viewed, within the gay community, as something that men in the closet and man unable, or unwilling, to get sex in any other way. But the public nature of it is also considered somewhat gauche, with most men looking for quick and easy anonymous sex mostly turning to the relative privacy of the internet these days. It's also extremely dangerous behavior, as accosting men hanging about in known cruising grounds is a popular habit of gay bashers, not to mention that men who engage in high risk sexual behavior such as public sex are, statistically, more likely to have been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases.

And to be sure, Michael has taken quite a bit of flack for this from the gay community. For that he has only himself to blame, as his angry reaction and insistence that "This is my culture!" immediately triggered denunciations and attempts to insist that public sex is not something gay men engage in. Which is more than a little bit of a hypocritical stand to take. Because, if nothing else, public sex is very much a part of gay fiction, gay film, gay art, gay porn, and just about every coming out narrative ever written, even if only in a romanticised fantasy version. The real point of the gay community's swift condemnation of George Michael is damage control. The mainstream media delights in stories of gay men being caught in public sexual acts because it serves their narrative of gay men as perverted deviants who will have sex with anyone in anyplace. The message is "don't judge us based on his behavior."

That desire to frame narratives is also a big part, I believe, in the rise of what some people have started to refer to as "openly closeted" people. This would be people who are gay, live their lives as gay men or lesbians, but steadfastly refuse to actually go that one step beyond and publicly acknowledge that, yes, they're gay. For public figures, and former public figures, this is a largely ideal arrangement. The press can insinuate as many rumors as they like, but they will always pull back from "outing" a person for fear of opening themselves up to libel suits, and the famous or semi-famous person only has to avoid making too obvious a spectacle of themselves. Or engaging in any potentially scandalous behavior. Like hitting on a policeman in a public bathroom. Or masturbating in a porno theater. Or, well, you get the idea.

In Bass's case, it's very hard not to view his annnouncement with some cynicism. As a musician, his career is largely over, and the last time he was really in the public eye it was because of his attempt to buy his way onto an Russian space flight. The news of his coming out was hardly unexpected, as for months Bass has been seen in public venues, including a number of gay bars, with a man famous chiefly for being gay. It's worth noting that the timing of this announcement also comes as Bass is trying to get a sitcom starring himself on the air. The theory being, apparently, that if it worked for Ellen Degeneres it might work for him as well.

And I don't particularly intend to be mean spirited to Bass, especially in light of my slight sympathy towards Michael for the situation he has placed himself in. To be a good, politically correct queer I should, of course, be applauding Bass for coming out at all. Most "openly closeted" celebrities have so far been unable to go as far as he has. But I want to avoid casting Bass as a role model for gay and lesbian teens, because he purposefully chose not to come out when he was more of a public figure, and he could have acted as a role model then. Instead, he waited for a time when it was advantageous for his career to make some publicity for himself, and all he had left to interest the public was his sexuality. This is the other convenient aspect of the "openly closeted" lifestyle; the ability to largely control the terms and degree of their openness by manipulating the press.

Why the press is so eager for these narratives is an odd question. The scandal stories serve that need to convince "the regular people" that yes, indeed, gays are all filthy disgusting perverts, but why do the coming out narratives hold such popularity? On the one hand, it's a good PR move to the gay community itself. By pointing to those situations where wealthy people with nothing to lose come out of their self-imposed closets of convenience, they can largely deflect the criticism that most of their coverage of gay issues is inherently homophobic. But on a subtextual level, these coming out stories are usually presented as if some hardship has been overcome and now the celebrity is opening up about it, as if homosexuality was a disability or disease that the celebrity is bravely doing his or her best to live with. It all feeds back, ultimately, to the mainstream press insisting on the "otherness" of gay men and lesbians to reassure the public that they're the normal ones, and aren't those people like you different and odd.


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