Anderson Cooper, Opacity, and the Loss that is Queerness

Anderson Cooper publicly says that he’s gay, and the world blows up. At least, that’s what it seems like.

There’s a whole host of things we can talk about here; the “outing” of a public figure usually works up a lot of brouhaha. I’ve been particularly interested in the responses I’ve been seeing via Twitter and Facebook, most of which can be broadly divided into two camps: “Well, duh” and “Damn, now I don’t have a shot.” I think there’s some interesting things I’m trying to tease out in my head about both of them.

I’m not really a fan of the metaphor of “the closet” anymore. You may have heard some of the objections: it limits “coming out” to a singular event; it produces discourses of shame/confession; it’s a “colorblind” paradigm that ignores nuances of race/class. I really think it’s interesting that we’re trying to force Cooper’s narrative to fit the idea of the “closet” when the metaphor breaks down (for most people): If we all knew he was gay anyway, why does this public “coming out” matter?

Say what you will about the need for “out role models,” I think it’s important for us to interrogate the usefulness of the idea of the closet. Cooper talks a lot about wanting to balance public/private aspects of his life, and that’s reasonable, to me, it seems. It’s making wonder if there’s a sort of tyranny of the closet–a need to produce confessions from queer people–a forcible “outing,” if you will. I’ve felt it before myself: The closet was a useful metaphor for my life, until it wasn’t, and then trying to force it on me (“You still haven’t told me you’re gay, c’mon, just confess to it, already!”) only made me feel…well, forced. I think sometimes, we want to use the forced confessional of the queer object to make the hearer feel like a good person or to use it as a political tool. (“Oh, you feel like you can come out to me, I feel special!” or “Look at all the good your story will do.”) Cooper has every right to tell his story. I’m glad he has. I just wonder how important it is that we say he’s “come out of the closet.” (And remember: For some queers, “coming out of the closet” isn’t a viable life choice. I think that’s another important point about the tyranny of the closet.)

The response to Cooper’s declaration also reminds me of Nicholas de Villiers’s recent concept of “opacity.” If we all “knew” Cooper was gay, but no one knew it, can we really say there was a closet at all? Perhaps we could read Cooper better through a lens of opacity. (Haha, that sounds funny.) But really, I wonder how much the closet breaks down as a metaphor in this case. If the closet doesn’t have walls and a ceiling, was it really there at all? De Villiers insists that by employing the idea of opacity, we open up new modes for queerness that don’t depend on the closet. What happens when we force Cooper back into a closet that wasn’t there in the first place, then make him come back out? (I don’t have an answer, I just think it’s an interesting question.) It reinforces the tyranny of the closet, I think.

And just one more thing. Anderson Cooper may indeed be a god. (Go to about 11 minutes into the video. And then watch the whole thing, because it’s beautiful.) But there’s a lot of damage done when we meditate on one person’s queerness as someone else’s loss. Since I study children’s literature, I’m reminded forcefully of the quote in Ann Rinaldi’s The Good Side of My Heart that goes something like this: “All that masculinity, wasted.” As if queerness resigned someone to being disposable and worthless. Saying “all the good guys are gay” not only devalues straight men, it also devalues gay men as people who should just be glossed over.