To Out, or Not to Out?

A pair of stories over the past few weeks have me thinking about coming out. More specifically: when is it okay for a public figure to come out on their own terms, versus being forced out?

The first story concerns Robin Roberts, the anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America. Although her sexuality’s been an open secret for years, she didn’t publicly acknowledge it until just before New Years, when she thanked her “long time girlfriend, Amber” in a Facebook post.

The second concerns Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois. The second-term Congressman has been the subject of gay rumors since winning election to the House, thanks to his good looks and particular fashion tastes. Journalist Itay Hod has created some of the strongest rumors in the past few weeks, though, with a Facebook post about an unnamed Congressman caught in a shower with another man by one journalist, and by TMZ at various gay bars. The post concludes with a link to AMERICAblog’s article, “The 7 gayest Aaron Schock Instagram posts of 2013.”

If Schock’s gay, though, he’s doing whatever he can to hide it through his voting record. The HRC assigned Schock a score of “0%” on gay rights issues. He’s opposed the repeals of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and DOMA. He supports the Federal Marriage Amendment, and opposes adding sexual orientation to hate crimes laws.

In both of these cases, there are (or were) rumors about a public figure’s sexual orientation. Do both have a right to come out on their own terms, or on someone else’s?

What it comes down to, in my opinion, is the nature of their public status. In Roberts’ case, while she is a public figure, and her coming out has the potential for changing someone’s mind about our community, she’s also entitled to some privacy in her life. Deciding not to come out publicly may not help us, but in Roberts’ case, it also doesn’t actively hurt the larger LGBT community.

One comment I’ve seen mentioned concerns the documenting of her life as she fought breast cancer a few years ago – while family and friends were included in the footage, Amber was conspicuously absent. Roberts hasn’t explained it yet, but I have a theory: as much as coming out shouldn’t be a huge deal, it is. Having to deal with coming out as a public figure while fighting cancer is probably too much for anyone to bear. On top of that, coming out would likely overshadow Roberts’ work on breast cancer awareness, and it’s understandable why Roberts wants to focus on the latter.

Schock’s case, meanwhile, is very different. His status as a public figure, in combination with his voting record, makes his work against the LGBT community harmful. I don’t believe that we should automatically assume that someone who’s virulently homophobic is also gay, but if there’s evidence that he’s a hypocrite, he should be called out. More specifically, if there’s concrete proof that journalists have that Schock is gay, it should be brought to the public’s attention.

That being said, if we’re just going off of rumors we can’t verify and stereotypes regarding certain behaviors, we should reevaluate going after Schock and others like him. There’s certainly ample room to argue against his voting record without suggesting he’s a self-hating gay, if there’s no legitimate proof that it’s true.

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