If the success of a speech is measured by its capacity to provoke a set of raging, contradictory reactions, then Jodie Foster has a hit on her hands. Hollywood players and gay organizations are fawning over her remarks at Sunday’s Golden Globes, while gay critics like Andrew Sullivan have slammed her for her cowardice. The dispute hinges on whether or not Foster came out of the closet. If you think she did, however awkwardly, you’re likely to approve, or at least to sympathize. If you think she played peek-a-boo while sniping about the invasion of her privacy on national TV, you’re likely to revile her.
I find this whole contention very odd. Whatever it is that Jodie Foster did or did not do at the Golden Globes has very little relation to the act of “coming out,” at least as it is performed by 99.99 percent of the gay population. When you or I come out, it is to a circumscribed world of intimate social relations. First we tell our friends or family members. Then the orbit spirals out to co-workers, acquaintances, the communities in which we travel: a neighborhood, a church, a profession, the “friends” in your Google+ circles. The impact of these disclosures is almost always a function of proximity; coming out changes the way someone we know thinks about gay people. And in aggregate, this can be quite powerful; repeated millions of times by millions of people, coming out has been the signal act around which the gay movement was organized. But let’s have the self-awareness to admit that however many pride rings we wore in the ’90s, in the grand scheme of the cosmos the measurable effect of any one of our individual acts of coming out is rather infinitesimal. It’s only within the smallness of communities and alongside a social movement that our disclosures matter.
None of this describes the conditions encountered by the Entity Known as Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes, because the Entity is not a human being like you or me. The Entity is friends with Mel Gibson. The Entity is a celebrity, a rare creature to whom we ascribe magical powers that transcend known social relations.
Of this idolatry the gay movement is guiltier than most. We maniacally search for the next has-been child star to splash across the covers of our magazines, as if fame were a short cut to liberation. We measure our success by the number of out actors/rock stars/professional athletes, as if this were somehow an index of political power. We seek to make Positive Examples of the lives of celebrities, because really, what can be a more useful primer of how to grow up gay than the life and times of Lance Bass?
It’s this deracinated form of role modelism that Jodie Foster frustrated in her speech on Sunday, and I for one am grateful. Yes, I found her claim to privacy—made on the grandest of stages while name-checking her ex and with her sons in the audience—to be rich. And her churlish swipe at Honey Boo Boo Child was both cruel (the girl is just 6) and a false equivalency (there are plenty of out stars who don’t pander to reality TV). But all that aside, Foster also seemed to be struggling to say: ‘I came out a long time ago in the same way that normal people do. What you want me to do now is to play a role, and I decline.’
I’m not ultimately sure what her motives were for doing that, but by refusing to say the magic words, “I am a lesbian,” Jodie Foster did the gay movement a service. She broke a spell.