Jodie Foster is about my age--she's a few years older, actually--and was an object of extreme fascination for me when I was child. I felt like I could sense that Jodie was a lesbian even before I knew the word "lesbian," and certainly before I ever applied the word to myself.
Other lesbians in my age group have told me the same thing. Some claim their gaydar went off as early as Jodie's appearance as Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer. That role was in 1973, which would have made Jodie 11 at the time.
Jodie was in college around the same time I was. And it was through the college connection that I heard that Jodie Foster did, in fact, prefer women. To be more specific, I found out through the greatest gossip source in the country--better even than the formidable gay grapevine. I heard the news through the Yale alumni gossip phone tree. [Edit: I am not a Yale alum. Jodie is, and I know people who went to school with her.]
(Yale alumni are the best gossip source because they encompass so many movers and shakers in all fields. Catch a Yale alum on the phone the day after they've received their alumni news in the mail--when resentment of their peers' accomplishments is at its highest--and you never know what will spill out: news of Presidential affairs, the sexual preferences of a recent Oscar winner, etc.)
If Jodie had chosen to come out after her college years, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, it would have made a huge impact on the gay and lesbian community. Rock Hudson's coming out--reluctant though it was--made a huge difference in how people perceived gays and understood AIDS. It would have also made a significant impact on me, because I was young and there weren't many visible role models for gays and lesbians.
I've always felt that coming out is an individual decision that shouldn't be pushed or prodded. As a practical matter, pushing and prodding usually isn't very successful. But even so, coming out is a difficult decision to make. It's not only an individual decision, it's a political decision--one with tremendous consequences for the individual.
I read a number of articles about Jodie Foster's coming out speech at the Golden Globes that criticized Jodie for not coming out earlier. The general tenor of these pieces was, "Hey, it's not a big deal anymore to come out! You missed the boat, Jodie. You should have done this earlier! Same-sex couples are getting married now!"
Um, no. While some headway has been made in recognizing same-sex relationships, we still have not achieved marriage equality. Housing, employment, health care and personal safety remain areas of vulnerability for gays and lesbians. People forget what a radical act it is to come out. It started as an act of political defiance and it will remain one for as long as stating one's sexual orientation has the potential to endanger one's life and liberty.
I know many people today who are open with friends and family but who are closeted at work. Even in big cities and gay-friendly professions, there remains a glass ceiling for gays and lesbians. When I listened to Jodie Foster's speech, I didn't hear her retiring, I heard her wondering aloud if she was ever going to work in Hollywood again.
People might say, "No way! Look at Ellen! Look at Rosie!" But they are comedians, not leading ladies. There are no out leading ladies, which should tell you something about Hollywood's attitude towards the idea. That's why it's a big deal that Jodie Foster came out. Say whatever you like about how and when Jodie chose to come out, it is a milestone, especially for those in the acting profession.
Michelangelo Signorile wrote that Jodie's speech was "another example of the new way that celebrities are coming out, embarrassed in 2013 to have ever been in the closet and claiming that they've always been out." I'm sympathetic to that argument, but I think Signorile has the wrong target.
It's not just that American's attitudes towards being in the closet or being gay have changed. There is a larger shift happening, and it is only partly generational. People are fed up with being lied to. Lied to for years upon years, about things that are important to them. They don't like the government lying to them, or the media, or Hollywood, or the church, or the military or the banks.
That's what transparency is about, as well as Wikileaks and hactivism and other growing cultural and political phenomena. Unfortunately, many of our institutions are built on the premise of controlled access to information. They decide what you need to know, whether it is the sexual preferences of top money-makers in Hollywood, how your tax dollars are being spent, or what you can access on the Internet.
Deb Baer writes about her anger regarding Jodie Foster not coming out earlier by making a comparison:
I, and so very many others, took a leap of faith and dealt with the consequences. Sure, I wasn't worried about losing $20 million a picture, but it's all relative: I feared that family and friends would abandon me, that I'd get passed over for jobs and promotions, that I'd be the victim of violence, and all the other clichés from the after-school specials.
Actually, it's not all relative. $20 million a picture is $20 million a picture. Money is the reason why Hollywood doesn't want its stars to come out. Coming out is not part of the business model, just as privacy for stars is not part of the business model. Self-exploitation is a big part of how the star system works. With her speech, Jodie appeared to be opting out of a system that encouraged her to lie about her private life for so long.