An Open Letter To Maria Bello

Laurel Hermanson discusses why we should all still care when a celebrity comes out, even if they don’t come out “all the way.”

Just kidding; this isn’t an open letter. Open letters are usually written to criticize public figures for behaving in a manner the writer feels was inappropriate because it doesn’t align with his or her own moral compass. I have nothing against a good public shaming when it’s called for, but…

Let me start over. I am a huge Maria Bello fan. Since her brief stint on ER, I have yet to see Bello give a performance that didn’t improve any film or TV show in which she’s had a role. (No, I haven’t seen them all.)

When I first heard about Bello’s New York Times op-ed piece, “Coming Out as a Modern Family,” I joked that if anything ever happened to my husband, at least Maria Bello wasn’t completely unavailable to me. Sadly, I read about it on Gawker and neglected to click away before scanning the top comments (usually the most Neanderthal frat-boy rants). Since I like Bello, I read her essay to see what the fuss was about.

Celebrities rarely make low-profile announcements about their personal lives, and Bello’s was no exception. An op-ed piece in the Sunday NYT guaranteed a huge audience. After reading her article, I was glad she wrote it and happy they ran it. I liked how Bello framed her “sort of” coming out within the context of a conversation with her son. It was lovely—simple, heartfelt, guileless.

Most of the negative Gawker comments centered around a “Why should we care?” theme. I suppose these commenters believe it’s de rigueur to act blasé about social commentary of any kind, particularly a personal piece written by a female celebrity. But there are very good reasons why we should care when someone takes the time to talk about something that isn’t talked about openly enough.

Celebrities are in a no-win situation when it comes to balancing their private lives with their public personas. If Hollywood stars demand too much privacy, the media grills them about everything from what they eat to who they sleep with. If they reveal too much, they are accused of being narcissistic attention seekers.

Consider the relentless speculation about Tom Cruise’s sexual orientation. If a star of Cruise’s stature prominence maintains that he is straight, why do we obsess over suspicions that he’s gay? If he’s forced to repeatedly dodge questions about his sexuality, he starts to seem like kind of an asshole, like maybe he’s horribly closeted or homophobic. But does he owe it to the public to come out if he’s gay? Does he owe it to other gays?

There is still a stigma around homosexuality, and not just in Hollywood. We live in a country where same-sex couples still fight for rights equal to those of straight couples. Gays and lesbians still struggle with if, when, and how completely they should come out. Telling close friends and family might be a good start, but what about coworkers and casual acquaintances? And in a society where ignorance and intolerance often turn violent, public displays of affection are still risky for same-sex partners.

So when a public figure like Maria Bello writes an honest piece about finding romantic love with another woman while maintaining a circle of friends, family, and ex-lovers (including her son’s father) whom she considers “partners,” a better question might be “Why shouldn’t we care?”

Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly prior to 1997’s “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen. Once the show aired, however, the conservative backlash was swift and harsh, calling it “a slap in the face to America’s families.” Even the Washington Post and the New York Times criticized DeGeneres for being too affectionate with partner Anne Heche at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the Times calling DeGeneres’ and Heche’s behavior an “ostentatious display of affection.” The show was cancelled at the end of the next season.

DeGeneres took a bullet for the team and in doing so broke ground for TV shows featuring gay characters (Will and Grace premiered in 1998). Still, despite DeGeneres’ comeback as a popular talk show host, we have not yet reached a place where celebrities coming out is irrelevant. To think otherwise is at best naïve and at worst deliberately obtuse.

When someone writes something controversial, I try not to judge until I’ve asked myself a few questions. It’s a bit of a process, so here’s a handy chart for quick reference:

Bello isn’t the only celebrity to reveal she’s found happiness with a same-sex partner. British Olympic diver Tom Daley recently announced in a YouTube video that he is in a relationship with a man. Daley said, “Of course I still fancy girls but right now I’m dating a guy and I couldn’t be happier.”

It may be important to note, as this Time piece does, that neither Daley nor Bello said they were gay, lesbian, or even bisexual. They simply acknowledged that they are happily involved with same-sex partners. This little omission has the media in a bit of a dither.

The Los Angeles Times claimed that these recent celebrity disclosures have elicited little more than a “collective shrug,” which allegedly indicates progress. “When people come out today, there’s no scandal, no controversy,” Rich Ferraro, spokesman for GLAAD said. On the other hand, Tyler Coates wrote in Flavorwire that “the notion that coming out is ‘no big deal’ is not what we should take from these public revelations.” Coates went on to say, “These coming-out narratives are not the norm, no matter what the self-satisfied members of the progressive mainstream media suggest.”

When I was in my early 20’s, I asked a gay friend why it was so difficult for some gay people to come out to friends whom they knew would be supportive. He didn’t hesitate in telling me I had it all wrong. He said, “The hardest part of being gay isn’t telling other people. It’s admitting to yourself that you’re gay.” That was 20-some years ago, and I wonder if the same is true for gays and lesbians today. Maybe it’s just the opposite, especially for celebrities.

Being in the public eye might make celebrities more inclined to disclose same-sex relationships because they would like to avoid being called out (see: Tom Cruise). Maybe Bello or Daley were tired of worrying they might slip up in public and get caught by the paparazzi kissing their partners. Maybe they were just tired of hiding relationships that make them happy. Since neither explicitly said they were gay, we don’t know if they’ve accepted that label, or even if they feel the need to. That is their business. We don’t get to judge if they are “gay enough.”

Both were honest about their relationships and contributed to the ongoing conversation around homosexuality. I’m pro-honesty, and pro-conversation. When we talk openly about who we love and how we build our families, we are given an opportunity to be less judgmental of lifestyles different than our own. That’s progress, and we should definitely care about that.

P.S. Ms. Bello, thank you for sharing your story. I hope this finds you in good health. And should you ever need a shoulder to cry on, there’s one here for you in Portland.

Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. Her essays have appeared in online magazines including Daily Life, Everyday Feminism, Jaded Ibis Press, and Ravenous Butterflies. She blogs occasionally at disgrace under pressure. Follow her on Twitter.

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