Saturday, June 27, 2009

It Shouldn't Matter. Except it Does

In this third installment of The Wild Reed’s special “Gay Pride 2009” series of posts, I share John Corvino’s thoughtful reflections on the coming out of singer Adam Lambert (pictured at right). Corvino’s piece was first published at earlier this month.


So, Adam Lambert comes out in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, and you’re thinking, “What’s next? Rolling Stone announces ‘Water is wet’”?

I get where you’re coming from. But there are deeper lessons to be gleaned.

First, notice how Lambert comes out — in a music magazine, with his sexuality occupying a relatively minor portion of the article. And he does so with the candid yet indirect phrasing “I don’t think it should be a surprise for anyone to hear that I’m gay.” The gayness is almost taken for granted — embedded in a sentence about public reaction, rather than placed front and center.

That approach reflects a larger trend in how society — and in particular, younger generations — view gayness: as a simple matter-of-fact, not something to be belabored. The contrast with Clay Aiken’s “Yes, I’m Gay” People Magazine cover is subtle but important.

And yet, second, there’s an ambivalence in the article that captures the national tone on the issue. Lambert says, “It shouldn’t matter. Except it does. It’s really confusing.”

He’s right on all three counts.

“It shouldn’t matter.” American Idol is a singing competition, and Lambert wanted to — and should — be judged on his vocal performance. His decision to wait until after Idol to answer the gay question, he claims, stemmed from his desire that his sexuality not overshadow his singing. (It may also have stemmed from a desire for votes, and I couldn’t blame him for that. It’s not as if he lied about being gay or took great pains to hide it.)

“Except it does [matter].” As Lambert himself put it in the interview, “There’s the old industry idea that you should just make sexuality a non-issue, just say your private life’s your private life, and not talk about it. But that’s bullshit, because private lives don’t exist anymore for celebrities: they just don’t.”

The music industry doesn’t just sell songs; it sells images. For better or worse, personal backstory is part of that (especially on Idol).

What’s more, gay celebrities give hope to closeted gay kids, who need to know that they’re not alone and who sometimes don’t have gay role models in their everyday lives. That’s not to say that Adam Lambert is any more representative of gay life than any other gay person. It’s just to say that his representation, such as it is, will reach more people.

“It’s really confusing.” Yes indeed. We live in a nation where, for some people, much of the time, gayness is a non-issue, and for others, virtually constantly, it’s huge. American Idol is one of those “common denominator” phenomena (say that three times fast!) where these different groups interact with each other. Often they can do so while avoiding the issue of sexuality. But not always.

And the tension here is not just between groups; it’s also internal. When Lambert says, “I’m proud of my sexuality. I embrace it. It’s just another part of me,” he unwittingly raises a question — one that opponents often hurl at us: “Why be ‘proud’ of something that’s ‘just another part’ of you?” Why take pride in a trait that you didn’t choose and is supposed to be no big deal?

Answer: because it is a big deal. It does matter. Maybe in an ideal world it wouldn’t, but we are still far from that world.

Ironically, it’s a big deal precisely because our opponents insist on making it a big deal. Thanks to them, Adam Lambert (like every gay person) has to negotiate the issue of revealing his sexuality in a way that straight people never do. I think he’s handled it admirably.

Lambert told Rolling Stone that “I’m trying to be a singer, not a civil rights leader.” Fair enough. But it’s also fair to note that civil-rights change doesn’t only come from civil-rights leaders. It also comes from countless small acts of revelation by ordinary and not-so-ordinary people, including Adam Lambert.

NOTE: For the first in this special Gay Pride 2009 series, click here. For the second, click here.

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
No Surprise, But an Important Event Nonetheless
“Glambert” and the New Gay Stereotype
Out Gay Actor Neil Patrick Harris: “I’m Striving to Be an Example of Normalcy”
Matthew Mitcham: Making a Splash
Openly Gay Diver Wins Olympic Gold

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