The “Privacy” of the Closet: From Jodie Foster to Manti Te’o

With Jodie Foster’s delivery of her so-called heartwarming yet “rambling” speech, the notions of honesty, disclosure, and privacy became the hot topics of the week. Rumors of Jodie Foster’s homosexuality had been looming in the media for years, and prominent magazines such as OUT even went as far as to posit that Foster inhabited a glass closet–meaning that many were aware that she was “out” even though she had never publicly acknowledged her sexuality. Although I’ll be the first to admit that Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe acceptance speech was somewhat disconnected and incoherent, it was definitely embedded with nuggets of brilliance and sheer emotion. Among these nuggets, there was one in particular that stood out from the rest:

“But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”

I for one can’t even begin to remotely imagine how intoxicating and suffocating Foster’s lack of privacy feels. True, to some extent, nobody living in the 21st century has  an idea of what true privacy feels like. Cell phones make it easier than ever for people to reach us at all moments. We constantly use Twitter and Facebook to let the world know where we’re at and what we’re doing. Even with the creation of websites and blogs, such as the one you’re reading right now, there is a certain degree of exposure that would’ve been virtually impossible a few decades ago. With every word that I publish in this blog, another chunk of my privacy is sacrificed. It’s now possible to Google my name, and immerse yourself deeply in my ideas and my work. I’m well aware of this.

But I’m not Jodie Foster, and I never will be. My ideas are out there for the world to see, but I really doubt that anyone would bother to know every minimal detail of my life, where I’m eating, what brand of clothes I’m wearing, who I’m dating… even if I publicly display this information on a social network. And I think that’s the major difference between Jodie Foster and the non-celebrity: while the average person has some degree of power in terms of what is or is not disclosed to others in terms of their personal lives, Jodie Foster lost that power years ago.

With that in mind, I can see why Foster desperately withheld any information in terms of her sexuality. Realistically speaking, it was one of the few private elements in her life that she was actually able to control.  Sure, people speculated. Other people definitely knew. But without her acknowledgement, the “public eye” was always blinded and unsure to some degree. And despite the so-called hypocrisy invoked with this blindness, I can’t help but envision how Foster found it comforting.

However, Foster was not the only person this week that has had to endure the slings and arrows that the lack of privacy hurls. When teaching my course on Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric today, we discussed the notions of ethics, honesty, and the virtues of rhetorical discourse. Unsurprisingly, the subject of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend hoax became the topic that these notions hinged onto. This hoax has been discussed in length by other venues, so I won’t delve deeply into what happened, but I will say this: my class and I generally agreed that there were too many discrepancies and gaps in the matter in order to make sense of it. I had skimmed through the original article on the hoax published by Deadspin, but I initially didn’t read it carefully enough to notice some of the more nuanced implications of what was discussed.

Manti

This afternoon, while discussing the Manti debacle with a friend while sipping on some coffee, she addressed the rampant rumors that the beloved football player deliberately devised the story in order to cover up a same-sex relationship that he is/was possibly involved in. This, of course, is due not only due to the lack of details and the inconsistencies in the story, but it is also due to several reasons that are pointed out in a blog post published by Andy Towle titled Gay Rumor Mill Ramping Up Over Manti Te’o ‘Dead Girlfriend’ Hoax.

I’m not here to discuss whether Manti Te’o is  or is not gay, because frankly, it is none of my concern. Sure, there are many gaps in terms of the information that has been disclosed to the general public, and there indeed is suggestive evidence that adds fuel to the rumors on Manti’s sexuality. However, what truly disturbs me is the fact that if Manti happens to be gay, he was outed in one of the most unfortunate ways possible. He was stripped of his own right to choose where, when, and who to share this information with. Rather than being offered the opportunity to step out of the closet on his own terms, the door to this closet was obliterated and he was yanked right out of it.

Let’s be very honest here: Manti is not only young, but he is also a prominent football player studying at the flagship of Catholic universities in the United States of America. Now, it is a widespread idea that Notre Dame is one of the most homophobic universities in the country, but I can honestly attest to the fact that this notion is blown out of proportion. Don’t get me wrong, there indeed needs to be progress in terms of how the university approaches some LGBTQ issues, but overall, I’ve noticed that the students, professors, and administrators at Notre Dame are nowhere near as close-minded as people deem them to be. But regardless of this fact, it wouldn’t make it any easier for Manti to come out even if he happens to be gay.

Unlike most of the student population at Notre Dame, Manti is a celebrity. People look up to him, people want to know his every thought and follow his every move. And when taking into consideration the fact that he’s Mormon, well, let’s just say that if I were in his shoes and I also happened to be gay, fabricating an imaginary girlfriend would probably seem to be a more feasible alternative than admitting the truth. True, perhaps this says a lot about the homophobic nature of many religions and of the realm of sports. But even more so, it says a lot about the notion of privacy.When it comes down to it, we have a degree of privacy that Manti will never have. This is very sad, and very true… but it is also quite expected.

Returning back to the notion of Jodie Foster, privacy, and the closet, Patrick Strudwick, a writer for The Guardian, expresses how he was slightly bothered by her Golden Globe speech because she chose her career over coming out years ago, an act that would’ve made it easier for future generations to come to grip with their sexual identity:

It is every gay public figure’s social responsibility to be out, to make life better for those without publicists and pilates teachers. Those who cry, “It’s none of your business! Who cares who I sleep with?!” shirk their public duty, and deny the shame that keeps the closet door shut. Do straight people consider their orientation private? You cannot skip the tough part of a human rights struggle. I long for being gay to be nobody’s business, to not matter, but we’re a long way off. You either do your bit, and in the case of an A-list actor, that means blazing a trail for other performers, or you remain concealed, bleating about privacy.

On one hand, I understand where Strudwick is coming from. After all, if high profile celebrities and figures don’t come out and remain within he confines of the closet, who else will set an example for people struggling with their own sexual identity? How can any change be achieved if prominent gay individuasl refuse to be examples? On the other hand, not every gay celebrity is Elton John, Ellen Degeneres, or Neil Patrick Harris. The journey out of the closet is a very subjective and idiosyncratic experience, reliant on forces that are many times out of the individual’s control. Sure, there is a price to be paid with fame, but does that necessarily imply that gay celebrities are obliged to disclose their entire lives, including their sexual identity? Does staying within the closet necessarily entail a degree of shame?

I believe Ricky Martin said it best when it comes to the notion of coming out: “When someone isn’t ready we must not try to force them out.” This notion applies to every gay person, whether it be a student, a worker, a Latino pop sensation, a star football player, or even an award-winning actress. Coming out is very much a private matter. For some people, it doesn’t get easier to come out. For some people, every person they come out to is a milestone.

Hopefully, there will come a time in which coming out won’t be necessary at all, but now is not that time. And while to some degree, we do need high profile individuals to be brave and set an example, we also have to recall that not everyone is a pioneer–and similar to the issue of privacy, this is something that should ultimately be respected.

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2 thoughts on “The “Privacy” of the Closet: From Jodie Foster to Manti Te’o

  1. BobbyCrack says:

    Very well done. This story will not have closure until Manti Teo decides to tell the whole truth. Unfortunately, where he may have been close, his handlers have clearly decided privacy is his best option.

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