Asking a celebrity about their sexuality isn’t the same as ‘outing’ them

The Internet is still getting the Tom Hardy ‘controversy’ wrong.

It’s 2015, and we now have marriage equality across the land, from the biggest cities to the most remote rural areas. Every day homosexuality is made part of a public record, entered forever into an official government document as people celebrate that bond of same-sex matrimony.

And yet, there’s a bizarre disconnect. Many people still argue that being gay or bisexual is a “private” matter, one which should never be broached, even among privileged public figures whose lives are an open book in the media regarding just about every other subject—including every aspect of heterosexuality. If they’re straight, every actual, potential or former sex partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife—is speculated about and reported on. And certainly the individual in question is asked about it, and can choose to address it outright or be coy. 

But when it comes to homosexuality or bisexuality, the media, still queasy about sexual orientation (and I think still just plain confused), view even simply asking the question as invasive. And too many gay people give them license to do so.

When the Huffington Post’s Noah Michelson wrote a blog post defending a journalist from a gay publication who asked actor Tom Hardy—who plays a gay gangster in the new film Legend—about his sexual orientation, Michelson was savaged in the comments by people who ignored his basic point: There is nothing offensive about asking a public figure about his or her sexual orientation.

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Instead, the angry mob responded with emotion rather than reason, defending the “privacy” of Hardy, who called the reporter’s question—which initially was an open-ended question, simply asking if it was difficult for actors to discuss their sexuality—“disrespectful.” Many argued that everyone must come out on his or her own timetable. (For the record, Hardy, even after the ensuing uproar, still hasn’t addressed his sexual orientation, saying only, “There’s nothing ambiguous about my sexuality. … I know who I am.” But he has in the past discussed having experimented with same-sex experiences “as a boy.”)

Many people still argue that being gay or bisexual is a “private” matter, one which should never be broached, even among privileged public figures whose lives are an open book in the media regarding just about every other subject.

But the truth is, Hardy and every other public figure forfeited much of their privacy when they pursued public lives and became public figures—and certainly forfeited “timetables” about any heterosexual affairs they may have, as well as many other aspects of their lives. They could have chosen to stay as private citizens, and they’d retain privacy in all aspects of their lives, from their tax returns to their romances. Instead, they decided to seek lives in the spotlight.

And ever since the landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, whatever is true about public figures is legally reportable and not considered private. More than that, in recent years state courts, including New York’s highest court, have ruled that it’s not wrong, or “defamatory,” to even falsely say someone is gay, largely because the culture has changed and become more accepting. How can any of us argue that it’s bad or harmful to even ask the question of a public figure when courts have ruled that it’s not slanderous or harmful to even inaccurately call someone gay, based on the progress we’ve made?

We claim we want to be treated equally as gay people, but then, in 2015, with much more acceptance in the culture, we still ask for special treatment of gay and bisexual public figures while every aspect of the sex and romantic lives of heterosexual public figures is dissected every day. We can’t have it both ways any longer.

Of course, it’s true that, unlike heterosexuals, LGBT people experience a great deal of discrimination in the majority of states, where there are no protections in housing, employment, and public accommodations. And there is no federal law protecting LGBT Americans. Bullying and suicides occur at alarming rates and LGBT teens are ejected from their homes in terrible numbers, with 40 percent of all homeless youth being LGBT. As I’ve written quite a bit—including in an entire book—our work is certainly not over, not by a long shot.

But ironically, when we refuse to broach the subject of gayness among public figures—and we are only discussing public figures here, not private individuals—we’re covering for people who mostly live in liberal bastions of the coasts who have full protections, who use the media to publicize their work and who know that doing so comes with a great deal of scrutiny. More than that, as prominent celebrities, media figures and politicians, they are privileged individuals who enjoy the great accomplishments of the LGBT movement while those kids are being thrown onto the streets.

There is nothing offensive about asking a public figure about his or her sexual orientation.

And it’s not going to change for those kids—and all kids—until they and everyone else see that homosexuality isn’t treated as an unmentionable subject among the most privileged and powerful people in society. Asking the question is not “outing”— a term I can’t stand—and a public figure can answer in any way that he or she chooses, from dodging the question (as Hardy did) to obscuring or outright lying about it. 

But I believe in 2015 a great many will simply choose to be honest when the question is asked, particularly if it’s asked again and again, and if the culture just stops coddling them.

It’s not the media’s job to cover up for public figures. And it’s certainly not the media’s job to send the mixed message to young people that, though they can now get married in any state if they’re gay, heterosexuality is glamorous and exciting—and reportable—but homosexuality is a dirty secret that should never be raised.

Michelangelo Signorile is the Editor at Large of Huffington Post Gay Voices. Signorile has written for many publications, including New York magazine, New York Times, and the L.A. Times.

This article was originally featured on Huffington Post Gay Voices and reposted with permission.

Photo via HoneyFitz/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Michelangelo Signorile

Michelangelo Signorile

Michelangelo Signorile is the Editor at Large of Huffington Post Gay Voices. Signorile has written for many publications, including New York magazine, New York Times, and the L.A. Times.