Time to shatter the ‘glass closet’

It is our job as journalists to treat gay and lesbian celebrities like straight ones

Jodie Foster’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes on Sunday was rambling, puzzling, oblique — and for many gays and lesbians, infuriating. We thought she had already kind of come out in 2007. Why was she making another frustrated-sounding, kind-of coming out speech again now?

Perhaps those gays and lesbians (I include myself in that category) should be less angry with Foster and more angry with the mainstream media that has let her (and other celebrities) get away with being partially closeted for so long.

For clubby Hollywood, which knows Foster as a friend, colleague, or acquaintance, the fact that Foster had been a partnered lesbian was an open secret, according to her own admission in the speech. Perhaps that’s why the Hollywood Reporter found her speech “stirring” and why Hollywood celebrities were quick to tweet their support. Pictures of Foster, her then-partner Cydney Bernard, and their children have long circulated in the tabloids and on gossip blogs, and in 2007 Foster thanked “my beautiful Cydney” at an awards breakfast, which many saw as a tacit coming out. In Hollywood, Foster was not in the closet.

But in the public eye, she was. While the gay press has, for years, matter-of-factly talked about semi-closeted celebrities like Foster as gay, the mainstream media avoids mentioning someone’s same-sex partner or gay life unless they have actually said “I am gay” in an interview or email, or they have come out in a press conference. (Foster circuitously addressed this herself, saying, “But now I’m told, apparently, that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance, and a primetime reality show.” This was another detail that made many gays and lesbians angry, since it seemed to be a slap at more heroic figures like Jane Lynch or Ellen DeGeneres, who instead of pleading privacy were bravely open about being gay when it could have tanked their careers.)

Michael Musto, back in 2007, called this semi-out situation the “glass closet” in Out magazine and mentioned Foster in the lede. He said that the glass closet is something that happens when a celebrity lives an openly gay life but doesn’t talk about it, and so the media doesn’t talk about it either. He wrote:

Jodie, it turns out, is one of the foremost residents of a ‘glass closet’ — that complex but popular contraption that allows public figures to avoid the career repercussions of any personal disclosure while living their lives with a certain degree of integrity. Such a device enables the public to see right in while not allowing them to actually open the latch unless the celebrity eventually decides to do so herself.

I understand why the media does this. It is a holdover from the bad old days, when being gay was considered perverted and therefore being open equalled career suicide. Media outlets can still be hesitant when it comes to writing about someone’s partner or gay life, even after their death. But being gay is not — and is no longer widely considered — shameful. The majority of Americans support gay marriage, including the President. Gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military, and public figures, from actors to politicians, are openly gay without visible career repercussions. Times have changed. And let’s be honest — the media doesn’t respect the privacy of anyone in public life (witness the Petraeus scandal). Why should gay figures be the one exception?

I know that it might seem like entertainment journalism doesn’t matter, but in a society as celebrity-obsessed as ours, people like Jodie Foster, who direct and star in films that help drive the cultural conversation, are often covered in mainstream news outlets.

And when they are, it is our job as journalists to treat gay and lesbian celebrities like straight ones. That makes their love lives fair game. We need to ask about their partners and their families, not because it’s a scandal that they have them, but because it is our mission to report the whole truth about people, and those partners and families (and gay causes and organizations) are important parts of their lives.

Foster may have only sort-of come out, and that made gays and lesbians angry, because they are tired of these sort of half-truths. But honestly, she is right — she shouldn’t have had to come out at all. She had been living openly as a partnered lesbian. For years. Why didn’t the mainstream media report on that?

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: ,