Friday, December 14, 2007

Jodie Foster Comes Out

The lesbian blogs and web sites are buzzing today with news of Jodie Foster’s long awaited, much desired coming out. On the occasion of a women’s power meeting in LA (the 16th annual Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast), Foster received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award and, for the first time, referred to her partner, Cydney Bernard, thanking “my beautiful Cydney who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss” (see

The web site “After Ellen” (named in reference to Ellen Degeneres’ coming out) reports that people in the audience were visibly moved by Foster’s declaration. Ironically, Queen Latifah and John Travolta, both of whom are also rumored to be queer, keynoted the breakfast.

I found myself also moved by Foster’s gesture, and have spent some time after first reading about her speech trying to tease out why it’s politically and emotionally important to me to be able to claim Foster as a lesbian. I’ve long relished the rumors about her sexuality. The first I can remember hearing was that she and Kelly McGillis were involved in some sort of same-sex love triangle on the set of The Accused (1988), the film for which Foster went on to win an Academy Award for playing the working class victim of a brutal, public bar rape. McGillis played her lawyer, whose emotional response moves from indifferent judgment to empathy and respect as the story plays out.

After that, the rumors circulating (at least the ones that caught my ear) were less specific but always enticing, as we presumed that Foster’s sexuality was an open secret waiting to be told. She gave birth to two children, father undeclared; she never appeared publicly with a man at her side; she socialized with Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order: SUV (also rumored to be a lesbian, or perhaps that’s just my own wishful thinking); she looks at once butch and femme, tough and powerful, and supremely in control.

When we learned of Foster’s announcement yesterday, I asked my partner if she thinks younger lesbians and younger queer women will be as moved as we were by this public knowledge. I wondered whether the more (grudgingly) acceptable and public face of lgbtq culture means that these gestures of mainstream acknowledgement don’t matter as much as they did before Ellen, before gay characters dotted the landscape of network TV, before The L Word and Queer as Folk graced the premium channels, before Logo and Here gave those of us with good cable selections our own queer channels to watch, before Glenn Close played retired lesbian Army Colonel Margaret Cammermeyer in a made-for-TV movie.

Does Foster’s sudden willingness to stand publicly behind her private identity register as palpably for people who grew up with Out Magazine, or with Bitch, Bust, Curve, and On Our Backs, publications that play (or played) to a generation of women, lesbians, and queers with an already critical but committed relationship to popular culture, publications that regularly comment on queer sexuality not as aberrant, but as an acceptable part of the public landscape?

Does it matter to a generation for whom the political conversation about gay and lesbian lives plays out around our right to serve in the military (for those of us who want it) and our right to marry (for those of us who find matrimony a necessary benchmark of equality)?

Or does a public statement like Foster’s matter more for those of us who remember searching the public landscape and finding only veiled references to “deviant” sexuality, for those of us old enough to recall our own mortification and shame at how easily politicians could refer to the evil influence of “queers” (before that word was reclaimed with pride)?

Does it make a bigger impression on those of us who remember driving to marginal neighborhoods to find unmarked doors behind which stood the temporary, moveable feast of lesbian bars and nightclubs, places found only through word-of-mouth, doors that required screwing up your courage before you raised your hand to knock, peepholes that required a stalwart stillness as the eye peering out sized up your authenticity and decided whether or not to let you inside?

That appraising gaze implied that something could be seen about us that certified our lesbianism, whether it was the indifferent, perhaps masculine way we stood as we were scrutinized, or the clothes we wore, pointedly chosen to reject dominant culture’s assignment of femininity. We performed for that eye something resistant, something performative; that is, something that as we did it, made us who we were to those who could read the signs of our difference.

Isn’t that what we’ve been projecting onto Foster for the many years before this moment? Weren’t we studying how she stood, how she walked (in the dramatically high heels of the Hollywood glitterati, in the shimmering gowns of the red carpet in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), how something wonderfully tough and unyielding and non-compliant (that is, something butch) graced her beautiful performance of femininity?

Didn’t we scrutinize all her film roles for surreptitious signs of her lesbianism? Didn’t we note how toughly she played her characters, how she chose roles in which she was a strong, significantly single mother (with no reference whatsoever to the absence of a male mate) battling invading malignancies to keep her child safe (see Panic Room, 2002, and Flightplan, 2005)? Didn’t we notice that her recent roles were getting tougher and smarter and somehow more wry, while retaining that aloof, single and singular allure (see Inside Man, 2006)? Didn’t it seem that her beautiful smirk hinted at secrets we thought we knew?

I’m not fetishizing a difficult past, but I do wonder if the experience of being what Sarah Schulman so rightly called the last painfully instructed generation (I’m paraphrasing her here, but see her important collection, My American History [1994]) means that Foster’s announcement sounds different to ears that from long habit continue cautiously to hope and yearn for statements like hers?

I still can’t believe that I can see casual same-sex PDA (public displays of affection, of course) on network television. I remember so keenly what it felt like to watch That Certain Summer (1972), the first made-for-television movie about gay relationships, in the same “family” room as my parents, holding my breath as I tried to hide my obvious empathy, my obvious likeness, as I suffered the antipathy they muttered as they watched.

When a friend forwarded news of Foster’s announcement, I emailed it on to family and friends, needing to share with them this “evidence.” I told them that I was moved by Foster’s acknowledgement. But I wonder if I wasn’t also sharing the news to reaffirm for my wondering self that a life like mine is touched, by virtue of our sexual practices and our choices of who and how to love, by a life like Foster’s. Thirty years after I came out, I’m still trying to find approving cultural mirrors.

Foster’s now public partnership is protected by the blanket of wealth. My own partnership might resist official sanction, since we don’t want to be married or to stage a ritual of commitment, but it, too, is secured by the privilege of a bourgeois lifestyle, in which neither the plumber nor the pest control man blink an eye at our obviously shared “master” bedroom. In such a forgiving personal and (in Austin) social climate, why does it still matter to me that Foster’s come out?

Perhaps because my life bears indelible marks of my own painfully carried history, I know that lots of people without my access to money, to community, to self respect, to an analysis of our subjectivity, to theory, or to practice could use the example of Jodie Foster to shore up their own courage and pride.

Shortly after I first came out in 1978, I made what only in retrospect looks like a decision. I would always be out, even though as anyone who’s queer knows, coming out is an infinitely repeated process, instigated every time you fill out a form that asks about marital status, every time you see a new doctor, every time someone presumes your heterosexuality. I’ve committed my energy to that always repeated performance, because I remember viscerally how much it mattered to me to see other people be open about their sexual identities.

I’m assailed by fatigue, doubt, and the frisson of potential danger every time I publicly identify myself as lesbian or queer, but I do it because it still matters. A celebrity only has to come out once; after that, everyone “knows” (although who “everyone” is and what they think they know is anyone’s guess; perhaps that’s a subject for another post).

But nonetheless, I think that’s why I’m moved that someone as visible and culturally powerful as Jodie Foster is now willing to make that gesture. We need people like her on our team, because they make it just a little easier for people who aren’t free to do the same.

Maybe Queen Latifah and John Travolta will be next.

Happy that we are indeed everywhere,
The Feminist Spectator