On Sunday night, as Jodie Foster accepted her Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes, made an awkward and extremely peculiar speech. No one seems to be entirely sure what she was saying. Was she retiring from acting? Was she coming out even though she didn’t actually say she’s a lesbian—and even though she’s made out-ish comments and gestures in the past? Here are the parts that suggested coming out most clearly:
So I'm here being all confessional and I guess I just have the sudden urge to say something that I've never really been able to air in public, so a declaration that I'm a little nervous about. But maybe not quite as nervous as my publicist right now, huh Jennifer? Um, but uh, you know, I'm just gonna put it out there, right? Loud and proud, right? So I'm gonna need your support on this — I am single. Yes I am, I am single. No, I'm kidding. But I mean I'm not really kidding, but I am kind of kidding….
I hope you’re not disappointed that there won’t be a big coming-out speech tonight, because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago back in the stone age in those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family, and co-workers and then gradually, proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met. But now apparently I'm told that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press confrence, a fragrance, and a prime-time reality show. You guys might be surprised, but I am not Honey Boo Boo child. No, I'm sorry that's just not me, never was, and it never will be.... But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler. If you had to fight a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe then you too would value privacy above all else — privacy. Someday in the future people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was. I have given everything up there from the time I was 3 years old. That's reality show enough, don't you think?
Think that excerpt is confusing? The speech was much more so. You have to see her give it to grasp how uncomfortable and nearly incoherent it really was. Jodie Foster, fearless actor and director, was visibly terrified about what she was saying. If that was a coming-out speech, it took everything she had to give it. And god bless her for going as far as she could.
I’ve been hearing some carping—some published, some private—that it was too little, too late. She didn't even say the words, just talked about her ex! As Patrick Strudwick wrote in The Guardian, "It is every gay public figure's social responsibility to be out." I vehemently disagree.
It’s certainly true that back in the 1990s, when coming out was a real hardship, we would have loved to see her come out. I remember the unreal giddiness when Ellen DeGeneres and Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang (remember her?) first started acknowledging being lesbians in the media: having never heard public figures of any kind, including entertainment ladies, talk about their same-sex girlfriends, hearing names and details was absolutely exhilarating. We were not alone. A local Cambridge theater broadcast Ellen DeGeneres’ now-classic “puppy episode,” so that hundreds of lesbians could sit together to hear someone say on television—for the first time ever—that she was a lesbian. (Yes, she did it through a fictional character, but she’d let us all know in advance that it was true.) She lost her show in the backlash. Of course, DeGeneres has done okay since—but her stellar future wasn't obvious at the time.
But you know what? We’ve come a long way since the '90s. It turns out we didn’t need everyone to come out to make social progress. We just needed enough of us. We needed the ones for whom coming out was something they could handle. The grassroots and legal advocates kept making the word a little safer for ordinary folks, year after year; in response, more lesbians and gay men came out, year after year. By now we all know the world has shifted dramatically—so much so that even someone for whom coming out is a real emotional hardship has managed to do it.
Clearly becoming a gay symbol—and make no mistake, that's what would have happened—would have been an overwhelming emotional hardship for Jodie Foster, who has been a public figure since she was three-years-old. That’s before the advent of coherent memory. Think about that: She has never known the zone of anonymity that most of us take for granted. No wonder she’s rejecting the reality-TV life, insisting that she could never live with 24/7 cameras the way someone like Honey Boo Boo does.
Foster knows, from the inside out, that being admired by strangers is not what makes you real. She’s had her brush with the toxicity of fame. Remember: In 1976, when Foster was only 14-years-old, John Hinckley became insanely obsessed with her (emphasis on insanely). He stalked her for years. When she went to Yale, he moved to New Haven and tried to meet her there, making her college years a fright. He tried to assassinate the President of the United States, hoping to impress her. He shot Ronald Reagan, critically wounded Press Secretary James Brady, and hitting two others. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was incarcerated in a mental institution for decades. He’s been allowed out over the past decade, at times, although at times his obsession with Jodie Foster appears to have returned.
I cannot imagine how traumatizing all that might have been. If her response was to feel intense about wanting privacy from the celebutainment complex's constant staring, well, god bless her, and fine. No wonder she craves what most of us take for granted: a little privacy for her personal life (not being gay, but personal life at all).
We changed the world without her. And we all sure enjoyed gossiping about her for decades. (There was that rampant rumor, back when The Accused came out, about an angry love triangle with Foster, Whitney Houston, and Kelly McGillis, in which one of the three walked in on the other two, and someone ended up with a black eye. Was it true? Do I care? We sure had fun wondering.)
For me, as it happens, being publicly out as a lesbian has been easy, at least since I admitted it to myself when I was 20. It’s harder for me to write openly about being Jewish—probably because that’s what made me feel most like an outsider in Beavercreek, Ohio, where I grew up. Still other aspects of my life I haven’t been willing to write about publicly, at all. When I see other people being open about those things, helping reduce the stigma, I think about adding my own comment—but I cannot bring myself to do it. Those sides of me are locked down in privacy. I do the part that's easiest for me: being out as gay. Other people will have to blaze the other trails.
Anyone who chose to set himself up as a judge could castigate me for not being open about those other things, or for not commenting on what are arguably more important issues: poverty, the expansion of the national security state, torture. But I have only so much to give in this life, and the nexus of gender and sexuality happens to be where I can contribute. What a tedious world it would be if we all focused on the same couple of things! God knows I could never make a movie. Each one of us is different. We each give what we can, and rely on others to give what and where they can. Together we make a world.
Clearly, Foster did her best to be out on Sunday's show. She's a trailblazer as a woman—a successful Hollywood mogul, producer, and mother in an industry where there are few; as The New York Times just reported, in 2012, of the top 250 movies, only 9 percent were made by women. That’s enough trailblazing to ask of a single person.
Pretty much everyone who cares now knows that she’s a lesbian—and even more powerful, that she still cares deeply for her ex-partner, with whom she is still sharing the raising of their sons. Which brings me to perhaps the bravest and most beautiful part of her ramble last night, the acknowledgment of a reconfigured family:
"There is no way I could ever stand here without acknowledging one of the deepest loves of my life, my heroic co-parent, my ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life, my confessor... most beloved BFF of 20 years, Cydney Bernard. Thank you Cyd. I am so proud of our modern family, our amazing sons Charlie and Kit, who are my reason to breath and to evolve, my blood and soul.”
Jodie Foster has given the world what she can offer: movies aplenty, honesty about her family, and a couple of beautiful sons (who appear to adore her). That's a lot to give in one life. And I thank her.