Jodie Foster’s Golden Globes speech confused a lot of people. I’m not quite sure why, because it was – like her life – refreshingly transparent. If you left your handy dandy decoder ring at the bottom of the cereal box, here’s the basic translation:
“Screw you. I don’t need to come out. I was never in.”
Many viewers missed this. Others heard it, and got pissed off. Boo to them.
Foster has long adopted an approach to her life that rendered coming-out moot. That example was, she passionately explained as she accepted her lifetime achievement award, her unique longstanding contribution to her community. It was, she made abundantly clear to anyone who was willing to listen, her own display of bravery – and one she considered real and valid.
I consider it real and valid too. Working as much as I do with LGBT media outlets and organizations, I’m often asked to share my own coming-out story. Cue: crickets. I don’t really have one, which makes me something of a pariah to certain people. Don’t get me wrong; of course, there have been many “first times” when I told someone I was gay. But that’s not what “coming-out” is, is it? Coming-out is a moment marked by high drama and hysterical tears and broken dishes. It is capital-C Courage.
But what stories do I have to offer? It’s boring stuff. There are only the moments I remarked upon the especial hotness of a male specimen observed in the high school cafeteria, or told my friend about a particularly awesome make-out session with an only-so-so-looking guy. There are only the moments I would joke with crowds of college dorm mates about how I wound up the only spindly little white boy on our “Multicultural Floor,” or the time I informed my parents that I had just started dating someone: oh, and his name is Joseph. But more importantly, dad - what time are you picking me up this weekend?
Boring! If I were a celebrity (outside the acoustically sound walls of my shower, that is), these moments wouldn’t be exciting enough to satisfy. But I thought (was I wrong?) they were important. I thought they influenced my peers during a time that was more amenable to gay youth than those eras which others experienced, but far less amenable than certain veterans might expect. I thought it allowed my four nephews to grow up - from infancy to now teenagers - completely unfazed by seeing gay couples. I thought my matter-of-factness often did a fine job of shaming homophobes who tried to shame me.
Maybe that explains why, while others found Foster’s words loony, I found them pointed and brilliant. I loved that they were self-righteous. I loved that they were tinged with something we don’t normally see in speeches like that: anger. And I love that her anger was directed not only at the media, which has long resented her for refusing to deliver them an “event” re: her sexuality, but at – it seemed to me, anyway – the critics within her own LGBT community who have often de-legitimized her experience because it did not present itself as some traditional, shared-pain trope of triumph over adversity.
Predictably, knives were sharpened before she left the stage. As happens with every celebrity self-disclosure (see also: Ricky Martin) she received too few plaudits and too much armchair quarterbacking. Negative responses ranged from “Coward! What took her so long?” to “Tell us something we don’t know. Snooze!” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. When will all those pesky celebrities learn that they are responsible for conducting their coming-out process in a way that precisely satisfiesyour unresolved issues about your own?
Interestingly, no one seemed to comment on the irony of her being presented the award by Robert Downey, Jr., a once-interesting, subversive actor who in recent years has whitewashed his history of avowed bisexual dalliance, even calling it “manufactured” in a 2008 interview, in order to enjoy a career renaissance in family-friendly fare like Iron Man. (I guess we’re more forgiving of an actor who is at best a turncoat, at worst an exploitive liar, than we are of an actor who simply chose to live simply.)
In recent years, award shows have highlighted plenty of chest thumping, Glee/Gaga-era "let's hear it for the outcasts!" proclamations of varying sincerity. (Call me a cynic, but in 2013 and in an overwhelmingly safe entertainment industry, coming-outs and rah-rah rallying cries often have as much to do with self-branding, marketing, and self-congratulation as with actually inspiring a community.) None have even put a pebble-sized lump in my throat.
But Jodie: I was bawling within minutes. For the first time, a speech of this kind reflected a perspective I could relate to, and recalled my own experience. Those who choose to come out are always venerated; finally, someone was demanding recognition of those who choose to never be in.
Maybe some people disagree that Foster was never in. They make an assumption that, because she is gay, she’s chosen to live a private life. That’s unfair; she's clearly a private person in general, and her gayness has always been transparent - no more or less obfuscated than any other part of her life. That's dissatisfying to some activists, and certainly to an audience of media consumers who have been trained to fetishize the public coming out process. And Foster certainly didn’t score any points with a speech that rang with indignation. But I guess I understand where it comes from. When you never have a "coming-out moment," but just sort of live, many wrongly assume it is because you always had an easy ride: that you were always supported, that you never struggled, that you were never challenged. I think it requires a unique form of strength, resilience, and steely mettle to have never compromised your identity enough to need to come out.
Depending on where, when, and how you grew up, approaching your life in that way may be easier said than done. And it is not necessarily a better way to do things, but it is certainly not worse.
Appearing unhurt, un-intimidated and unfettered as you live your life on your own terms, even as you are hounded by criticism from within and without your community, is an award-worthy performance. For Foster, it was indeed a lifetime achievement – and one to be valued, not denigrated.