Anderson Cooper’s subdued coming out is an achievement in the long march toward it just “not mattering,” because it emphasized just how torturous it was that he hadn’t. A public figure must now perform more contortions to stay jammed in the closet than come out of it. Cooper’s statement — e-mailed to his friend Andrew Sullivan, who made a name for himself in part for being out back in the nineties as the young editor of the New Republic (itself a seedbed of a certain semi-well-known historical closet-iness, now owned by a young, openly gay man) — certainly makes one realize just how banal the “why I stayed quiet for so long” moment has become. The baroqueness of his self-justifications serve only to heighten that banality. Maybe that’s the real progress here.
For those who live in New York, or the web-based gossip version of this chattering city that can now be accessed worldwide, Cooper’s sexuality was hardly news (although I recognize it might have been for others). He’s a well-known aspirational figure for most of the gay men I know, TV-famous without playing gay for the camera (as does, say, Andy Cohen), pedigreed, emotionally expressive, and, of course, often sighted at the gym, working out. He’s a respectably silver-haired, grown-up gay man who lives in a pleasingly borderline-kinky refurbished firehouse. He can both giggle too much and also cover wars.
Cooper is, in short, what many gay men want to be. Probably his allure was also heightened, or given a hint of frisson, by the semi-secret around him, the fact that we knew this thing which he didn’t exactly acknowledge publicly, even if it was hard to miss if you ever interacted with him privately.
Still, when Cooper writes to Sullivan, “I try to blend in as much as possible” as part of his professional responsibilities as a journalist, it’s hard to be sympathetic; that is more or less the textbook definition of being in the closet. I find him more convincing when he says that he would “prefer to stick to my job of telling other people’s stories, and not my own.” Coming from a religious, conservative, military family in the south, that’s part of why I chose to be a journalist, too. There’s an attractive depersonalization to reporting which in some ways fits nicely with closetedness. But then again, I’m in no danger of being as famous or accomplished as Cooper, so its perhaps a silly comparison to make. I thought I wanted to stay neutral, but I suspect that I just didn’t want to get too involved, personally, and called it a desire to avoid “labels.”
Cooper writes: “I’ve always believed that who a reporter votes for, what religion they are, who they love, should not be something they have to discuss publicly.” But surely he must know that people watch him in part for his reactions as a gay man. Thanks to his chosen scrim of not acknowledging what “everybody” knew anyway, that’s been part of the context, both for those who liked him and disliked him, as when he stonily grilled the woman from an anti-gay North Carolina church that wants to put homosexuals behind electric fences or speaks out against the bullying of gay teenagers.
His perspective on those stories obviously comes from somewhere. He writes, “I’m not an activist, but I am a human being and I don’t give that up by being a journalist.” But we know this. We’ve always known that this is where you’re coming from. You might not be an activist, at least in the pedantic sense of the word, but you react visibly and those reactions are not difficult to read.
The bigger question is whether or not it matters to the rest of the country that the biggest star on CNN — a network struggling with its neutral identity — is gay. Many people have been calling for CNN to become more like MSNBC, to come out as liberal and play a more amusing and ratings-friendly part in the current game of thrones. I don’t know if this decision has anything to do with that. Does CNN need its own declared Rachel Maddow? Maybe so, at least in the partisan entertainer sense. But does anybody even think about Rachel Maddow’s sexuality any more? I suspect not that much. As it will be with Cooper, it’s just part of the background, less noticeable and less notable for its not being hidden any longer.