The ‘uncovering’ of Anderson Cooper

I’m writing this on July 4, the Independence Day of the United States of America.  We used to celebrate our own independence as a nation on this same date, until we decided that we owed it to ourselves to mark our full emancipation as a people by going back to June 12, 1898, when our ancestors declared their independence from Spain.  This did not prevent us, however, from following the American path, particularly in matters of law and culture.

Thus, we might be forgiven for taking more than a passing interest in two very dissimilar news events that caused quite a stir in the United States in the last few days. The first was the promulgation of a long-awaited Supreme Court decision on a case that questioned the constitutionality of President Obama’s healthcare program. The other was the decision of a veteran CNN reporter to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality.

In the ruling penned by Chief Justice John Roberts himself, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the so-called “Obamacare” law which orders Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.  The high court struck down the compulsory purchase of insurance as unwarranted under the commerce clause, but it upheld the right of Congress to impose a tax to support a health program.  Americans are thus free to buy or not to buy health insurance, but they would have to pay a tax if they did not have health insurance.  Roberts delivered the crucial vote that broke the tie. The decision restrained the Court from interfering in the policymaking functions of the political branch of government, arguing that the magistrates’ job was to interpret the law, not to make policy. The broad implications of this ruling on Obama’s presidential reelection bid have overshadowed the fine legal points it deploys.

Anderson Cooper, CNN’s star reporter and host of its popular public affairs show “Anderson,” stunned everyone when, in what seemed like an unexpected moment of candor, he came out publicly to affirm that he is gay.  In an e-mail to his blogger friend, Andrew Sullivan, who sought his views about gay public figures, Cooper acknowledged his early reservations about admitting his sexuality. In a perfect world, he said, one’s sexual orientation should not be anybody else’s business. But, given the discrimination, the bullying and humiliation to which gays are routinely subjected, “I do think there is value in standing up and being counted.”

Our local newspapers carried Cooper’s revelation on the front page but buried the Supreme Court ruling in the inside pages of the foreign news. Our radio and television anchors failed to mention anything about the arguments behind the Supreme Court decision, but devoted a good part of their banter to figuring out what Cooper had done and wondering whether we could expect any of our own gay public figures to show the same courage. Undoubtedly, the question of whether gay public figures had a duty to disclose their sexuality was, for us Filipinos, of greater moment than the issue of whether the Supreme Court ruling was a politically motivated act or an exercise of judicial statesmanship.

In the small world of American media, Cooper apparently had long been known to be “openly closeted,” meaning everyone who needed to know had long been aware of his sexual orientation. He never denied his gayness. But, neither did he—until the other day—find it necessary to say so “for the record.” Some who knew of his homosexuality took it against him when he “failed” to mention this in his memoir.  But, Cooper reasoned: “I did not address my sexual orientation in the memoir I wrote several years ago because it was a book focused on war, disasters, loss and survival. I didn’t set out to write about other aspects of my life.”

The question that intrigues me is whether gay persons have a duty to disclose their sexual orientation. Both Sullivan, the blogger who had sought Cooper’s opinion, and Cooper himself who expressly asked him to share his answer with others, seem to agree that something positive is gained when gay public figures come out to admit their sexuality. It goes a long way, says Cooper, toward dispelling the notion that one should hide one’s homosexuality out of fear, shame or guilt. I like the way Cooper formulates the reasons for his coming out. At first blush, they appear distinctly political and grand: “The tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible.”

But, if one looks closely, Cooper’s perspective is not so much political as it is personal.  It has everything to do with the struggle for fidelity to one’s gay identity. “I’m not an activist,” he stresses, “but I’m a human being and I don’t give that up by being a journalist.” Cooper may have read Kenji Yoshino’s wonderful book “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.”

“Everyone covers,” writes Yoshino, a law professor who is done with covering his own gayness. “To cover is to tone down a disfavoured identity to fit into the mainstream.” Such identity can be ethnic, sexual, religious, or it could be one arising from a physical condition. The demand to cover is an assault on civil liberties, he argues. “We have not been able to see it as such because it has swaddled itself in the benign language of assimilation.  But if we look closely, we will see that covering is the way many groups are being held back today.”

Cooper never denied his homosexuality, nor did he ever try to pass for straight.  But whether he was aware of it or not, he had been “covering” in order to blend with the mainstream. What he recently did therefore was not so much to disclose his homosexuality (which many people already knew), as to stop covering it once and for all. It was his independence day.