How Coming Out Became Cool for Celebrities

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For some famous, secure people, official confirmation of their sexual orientation isn't just a matter of honesty: It's a highly valuable commodity.

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Anderson Cooper has evaded questions about his sexual orientation for years. He may clarify the question soon, though: Rumors swirled recently that the CNN reporter and daytime show host will come out on Anderson in February—and lend his fledgling talk show a ratings boost. While it might seem slightly crass, it's not particularly surprising. Coming out remains a fraught process for many Americans—particularly for young people who still rely on their parents for emotional and financial support—but for some famous, secure people, official confirmation of their sexual orientation isn't just a matter of honesty: It's a highly valuable commodity.

The coming-out process has become yet another celebrity experience to be packaged up for consumption, along with weddings, divorces, weight loss, and first baby pictures. Famous people ranging from Neil Patrick Harris to country singer Chely Wright to boybander Lance Bass have announced their sexual orientations in splashy features in People magazine. Harris is perhaps the only one of those three whose career was sufficiently hot to have landed himself that cover for any other reason. Former American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken pulled a twofer in 2008 when he both came out and introduced the world to his infant son on the cover of People. Even straight guys can get in on the act. This July, former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin landed the cover of Out magazine with an exclusive interview about his gay brother, who died in 2009, and his subsequent work encouraging sports to become more gay-friendly.

It wasn't always this way, of course. Just as the treatment of gay people has evolved in the United States, it's the coming out process itself has changed. It was only a few decades ago that celebrities started to feel comfortable discussing their sexuality publicly. Despite the fact that there are still no out, active athletes in American professional team sports today, athletes actually beat Hollywood in beginning the public coming-out process. Former NFL running back David Kopay came out in an interview with the Washington Star in 1975, and tennis star Martina Navratilova followed six years later after she'd finished the process of becoming an American citizen. But those revelations carried greater personal and professional risk in a time before gay sex had been decriminalized, and as the rise of AIDS stoked anti-gay panics.

AIDS became an impetus for more stars to come out of the closet, not always at the rate they'd wished, and not always in their lifetime. People's status as the vogue venue for coming out stories began after Rock Husdon's death in 1985 when the magazine published a major story about Hudson's AIDS diagnosis and homosexuality, something his agent had kept a carefully if incompletely guarded secret during the star's life. Keith Haring was openly gay during his lifetime, but as HIV created a new kind of coming-out process as people disclosed their sexual orientations and their HIV status, he was vocal about his illness and used the Keith Haring Foundation in part to provide financial support for and images that AIDS organizations could use to communicate their messages.

It was Ellen Degeneres who set a new model for coming out that was designed both to help her life a more honest, fulfilled life, and to bolster her career int he process. In a coordinated campaign, Degeneres personally came out on the  cover of Time 16 days before "The Puppy Episode," in which her character on her sitcom Ellen joined her outside of the closet. She went on Oprah Winfrey to discuss the revelation the morning before "The Puppy Episode," and then had Winfrey serve as her confessor again on Ellen that same night. At the time, Degeneres said, "I did it selfishly for myself and because I thought it was a great thing for the show, which desperately needed a point of view."

And in the long arc she's been proven right. 42 million people turned in for the coming out episode, and after two seasons where the ratings had averaged 10.6 million viewers per episode, Ellen's numbers rose to 12.4 million viewers per episode in the final season. There were bumps along the way: her follow-up, The Ellen Show, only aired 8 episodes before it was cancelled. She's found new success as a daytime talk show host where she averages 2.74 million viewers per episode, a star on a smaller stage—though she's graced bigger ones, including hosting the Academy Awards in 2007. While her decision to come out may have made her a hot commodity in the gay market—the Human Rights Campaign and lesbian-oriented Olivia Cruises tried to advertise on "The Puppy Episode" to replace lost sponsors—Degeneres used that base to build a national audience composed of gay and straight people alike. Neil Patrick Harris followed in Degeneres's footsteps, coming out on the heels of high-profile playboy roles in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and How I Met Your Mother to show that gay actors shouldn't be limited to gay roles. He later hosted the Emmys and Tonys. When Degeneres and Harris came out, audiences could feel good rooting for a brave gay actress and a gay actor who transcended stereotypes. Those fans have stuck around because Harris is tremendously funny, and Degeneres is a charming host and interviewer.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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