Note: This post discusses the conclusion to Amy Sohn’s novel “The Actress.”
At the end of Amy Sohn’s novel “The Actress,” about a starlet, Maddy Freed, who comes to understand that her husband, Steven Weller, is gay, Steven tells Maddy that he will use his presenting slot at the Academy Awards to come out of the closet as a kind of reparation. But on the way to the podium, he recognizes that the impact of his announcement might not be what he intended.
“In telling the truth, he would be outing her as a liar,” Weller’s thinking goes. “She would be perceived as a dupe at best, a conniver at worst. They would mock her [appearance on a late-night talk show] and the marriage. Maddy had put herself on the line for him, and while he knew she wanted him to be honest for [their son] Jake’s sake, had she really thought about it, about the repercussions for her own career, her own image?”
About the same time, one of Steven’s former lovers, a young actor, comes out casually in an interview, slipping the phrase “as a gay man” into a sentence. “The Actress” is an uneven novel, but it captures something important. Even as public opinion becomes more supportive of LGBT people and LGBT rights, and even as the president of the United States reassures young people that LGBT life gets better, coming out of the closet as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is not always a simple calculation, or a simple process.
Mass culture often presents coming out as a one-off and a cure-all for everything that ails LGBT people. But coming out is not merely a matter of the sort of generational transition Sohn captures in “The Actress.”
Different states and localities have advanced toward LGBT equality at different speeds. Even if political progress occurs nationally, people born into the same generational cohorts may have completely unique coming-out experiences, depending on the communities where they are born and grow up, their families’ attitudes, political and faith traditions, and the environments in their schools.
Coming out may also be an ongoing progress. In “The McCarthys,” a new sitcom premiering on CBS this fall, the main character has to work hard to convince his parents that yes, he really is actually gay.
“It’s sort of based on my experience,” series creator Brian Gallivan told me at the Television Critics Association press tour in July. “You know, when Marjorie says in the pilot, ‘You’re still gay?,’ that’s actually based on a sort of joking thing my brother said to me, like, ‘Oh, you’re still gay?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Oh, well, we never meet anybody. I didn’t know if you were still pursuing it.’ ”
And while LGBT people are often grouped together, coming out may play a different role for transgender people than it does for their lesbian, gay and bisexual peers.
After Grantland published a widely criticized January feature that revealed that its subject, the inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was a transgender woman, and that she had committed suicide during the reporting of the piece, the site asked ESPN baseball reporter Christina Kahrl to write a critique of the piece. One of the concepts that Kahrl, who is transgender, explained is the idea of “deep stealth, a term that means she did not want to be identified as transgender publicly, and probably not on any level personally.”
“Stealth is something of an unhappy legacy of an earlier age. It was often the recommended goal for trans folks from the ’60s well into the ’90s from a psychiatric community that was doing little better than winging it,” Kahrl elaborated. “One of the difficulties that Essay Anne had imposed on herself is that, while trying to live a life in total stealth, she was also a hostage to the impossible and implausible collection of lies she’d created to promote her invention, inevitably risking discovery in an era when a cursory investigation can invalidate claims about something like a doctorate.”
For a woman like Vanderbilt, who lived through a period of tremendous social change, coming out would not necessarily have been the empowering, liberating process both our politics and popular culture suggest that it was supposed to be. Instead, coming out voluntarily, much less being confronted with the prospect of being outed as a result of other decisions she made, might have threatened everything she understood about the best practices for maintaining her physical and psychological security.
Katie Couric and Piers Morgan came under fire earlier this year for the way they conducted interviews with transgender activists Laverne Cox, Carmen Carrera (Couric) and Janet Mock (Morgan). I understand why many people found questions about these women’s surgeries and their comings out prurient.
Those questions seem informed by what journalists have been taught by the joyful coming-out stories of lesbian, gay and bisexual interview subjects. Difficult moments like these have helped tease out the ways in which transgender people’s experiences and understandings of themselves are not identical to those groups with whom they share an acronym. Just because people work together in political coalitions does not mean their lives are all the same.
Straight journalists had to learn about the significance of coming out for lesbian, gay and bisexual interview subjects. They will have to learn a new set of norms for how to talk to transgender people about their experiences in a way that is helpful and informative to their audiences and comfortable for their subjects.
It would be nice if coming out were easy and safe for everyone to do, and if the promise that life gets better by doing so could be consistently realized. Recognizing that coming out is a complicated calculation and that the math may be different for some people than for others in no way diminishes the idea that everyone ought to be able to live a secure, self-actualized and joyful life. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of how many roads there are to that point, and how important it is to smooth all of them.