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Viewpoint: Foster's coming out issue of privacy, not sexual orientation

Tuning in to the Golden Globe Awards is rarely the action of desire. More probably, it’s because the last NFL playoff game of the day has finished and there’s nothing else on. But viewers were rewarded this year by a fairly entertaining show, which included Jodie Foster, the award-winning actress and former child star, coming out as gay in her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

Foster’s sexuality has long been debated, and speculation has always been a little tongue-in-cheek. Foster has two boys, no husband, and has never made an attempt to set the record straight. Like several other of our most cherished actors (Tom Hanks, Daniel Day-Lewis), Foster has also always been intensely private about her personal life, which only seems to make the public and the media want to be more intrusive.

Fortunately, it is a different era into which Foster is coming out. People (with the obvious exception of the loud minority) and societies as a whole are far more accepting now than they were even five years ago, when coming-out speeches were more shocking and scandalous. Openly gay entertainers, for instance, can headline hit movies (Zachary Quinto, of “Star Trek”), TV shows (Jim Parsons, of “The Big Bang Theory”) and musical acts (R&B star Frank Ocean) without as great a fear of public disapproval or loss of sponsorship.

Foster, 50, had been living for many years with a partner, Cydney Bernard, and had come out privately to most friends and family members. They are now separated, but she publicly thanked Cyd and said how proud she was of their “modern family.” She mentioned more than once in her blunt and fast-paced speech how much it didn’t matter to her to “honor the details of (her) private life with a press conference.”

“Seriously, I hope that you’re not disappointed that there won’t be a big coming-out speech tonight,” she said, “because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age.”

That longing for privacy was something that Foster, a two-time Oscar winner (for “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs”) and movie star since the age of 3, prized most.

“If you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you, too, might value privacy above all else,” she said.

Her coming out does raise some interesting questions, especially given the years of pressure and negative criticism she received from the gay community for refusing to publicly acknowledge her sexuality.

Is it really any of our business? In a better-informed and more tolerant world, is it up to each of us to be responsible for declaring our sexual attractions, or is that just letting others define who we are by one trait? Does her status as a well-respected public figure obligate her to higher levels of disclosure? Because of her fame, are her personal affairs less personal? Is it important for her to publicly admit to being gay so that she can better represent and advocate for the struggles of the gay community? Or has the world changed enough that a person’s sexuality is no longer a big deal?

It’s a complicated topic for a complicated time. Whether this is an issue of privacy, or whether her years of secrecy made it a bigger issue than it really was, Foster should be applauded for her bravery, because coming out can be difficult under any circumstances.

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