I end every show with an editorial on one pressing and personal cultural topic. This week’s editorial dissects Empire star Jussie Smollett and his decision to publicly declare his sexuality as a gay man and his banishment of the proverbial “closet.” Watch the segment and read the transcript below.
That was a clip of Jamal Lyon coming out publicly through his music as a gay man on FOX’s new hit series Empire.
The character, an R&B musical prodigy, is played by Jussie Smolett. The actor and singer made headlines this week after appearing on The Ellen Show Monday where he performed and sat down with the openly gay talk show host to discuss his character’s sexuality as well as his own. Let’s take a look:
“It was really important to me to make sure that it got across that there is no closet. There’s never been a closet that I’ve been in. I don’t own a closet, I got a dresser, but I don’t have a closet. But I have a home and that is my responsibility to protect that home. So that’s why I choose not to talk about my personal life. But there is without a doubt, no closet that I’ve ever been in, and I just wanted to make that clear. But it was most important for me to make that clear to you on your show at this time in the world.”
After his appearance, Smollett received praise from costar Gabourey Sidibe, who tweeted:
@JussieSmollett You are a true Master of your craft, yourself and self worth. You are a King.
— Gabourey Sidibe (@GabbySidibe) March 9, 2015
And Queen Cookie herself, Taraji P. Henson, wrote:
— Taraji P. Henson (@TherealTaraji) March 9, 2015
I am also joining the choir, singing Smollett’s praises. Not so much for sharing his sexuality with us (because frankly that is none of our business). But for the way Smollett used his “coming out” moment to challenge the notion of the proverbial closet.
As Smollett states, he does not own a closet and has never lived or existed in one. But he has a home, a private space that is his refuge which he is charged with protecting. I applaud Smollett for challenging this idea that gay people exist in hiding and must announce to the world that they are quote-unquote “different,” that their lives and loves must be announced before the rest of us will fully embrace them.
Straight people are not asked to announce that they love people of the opposite gender, so why must same-gender loving people?
Smollett’s statements about “the closet” echoed the work of my dear friend, writer and editor Darnell Moore. In a piece for The Feminist Wire in 2012, Moore wrote about our need to move beyond the act of “coming out.” Instead he offers an alternative: Inviting people into our lives. Moore states that:
“The process of coming out, that is naming of our perceived “alternative” sexual identities, does not contravene heterosexism, but, rather, reinforces it.” He adds: “It is vital to accent the act and power of invitation. “Inviting in” centers on our choice as individuals to invite in those we desire to enter our life worlds.”
One of the reasons the gay rights movement has been successful is its urging that gays and lesbians everywhere come out of the closet. There is no doubt that this visibility on the part of gay people in culture and communities has shifted perceptions, leading to overwhelming public support of gay rights issues like marriage equality.
And Smollett is part of this cultural momentum and sees himself as an activist fighting for wider and greater equality. His role on Empire as well as his public revelation about his own sexuality will help reframe what is possible for gay men, for black men, for queer people in general.
But equality doesn’t look like the long-standing practice that requires gay people to make such public proclamations. Their lives and loves, their identities and bodies, their homes and closets are not ours. True equality looks like all of us respecting a person’s agency to extend or not extend an invitation to us.
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