The Out List

The Out List (2013) is a documentary that features interviews with LGBTQ celebrities as they discuss their experiences being LGBTQ. Three of those interviews are analyzed below. 

Neil Patrick Harris: television and stage actor, writer, and producer

In this clip, Neil Patrick Harris states that visibility is important for “general, normal, mainstream, middle America” because these people don’t “get out and witness a lot of diversity.”  In making such claims, he locates culture and diversity in the coastal metropolises and reproduces “middle America” as both backwards and homogenous. For Neil Patrick Harris, either there are no LGBTQ people in “middle America” or if they are there, they must not be visible as such. Mirroring the metronormativity of LGBTQ rights activist groups, Harris ascribes value to visibility and assumes that visibility means something similar across geographic places. Here, “middle America” is dependent upon the visibility of LGBTQ people elsewhere in order to advance in the same way urban places supposedly have. This thinking dangerously ignores the nuances of place and erases those whose sexual identities and expressions of outness differ from those of urban LGBTQ people.

Dustin Lance Black: film writer and producer

Like many national LGBTQ activist groups, Dustin Lance Black links visibility with liberation. For Black, both his personal and professional identities are tied to his sexuality and to operate otherwise suggests that one is “ashamed” or is  “run[ing] from” one’s sexuality. Black sees his sexuality as inherently political: he campaigned for President Obama because of Obama’s positions on LGBTQ issues. Metronormativity is evident across Black’s reflections of both the Obama campaign and Prop-8. He mentions campaigning for Obama in Virginia and Nevada (largely rural states) but does not mention campaigning in his home state of California, a state understood as one of the country’s most progressive but that ultimately voted against marriage equality. Furthermore, Black assumes that gay teenagers in Texas (a geographical stand-in for American conservatism) would be impacted emotionally by Californian policies–rather than indifferent towards California or concerned with LGBTQ issues in Texas. It seems unthinkable for Black that things may have been difficult for LGBTQ teenagers in California following the passage of Prop-8 or that things may not have been terribly difficult for an LGBTQ teenager in Texas.

Ellen Degeneres: talk-show host and comedian

In her initial statement, Ellen maps homophobia onto “small towns.” Yet, she also speaks in the conditional, which suggests that she didn’t actually face any homophobia in these places–something Ellen connects to being closeted. But the pressure Ellen felt to remain closeted was not located in her fear of being gay in a small town. Instead, this pressure emerged from her contacts within the largely metropolitan media industry. At that time, Ellen felt she was “a slave” to the closet and only “able to be completely free” after officially coming out. In articulating the benefits of coming out, Ellen echos the narratives of LGBTQ activists: coming out and being visible has personal benefits (the ability to be “completely free”) as well as social benefits (“a gentler world” and “a better world”). Rural LGBTQ Studies scholars have critiqued this way of thinking, suggesting that it ignores how knowledge circulates in rural places. In many places,

people know things about fellow community members without ever being told by the person in question. Therefore, what being out or being visible means is geographically contingent–something that gets lost when celebrities and gay rights activists say that “We just need to be a little more visible. We need everybody.”

As you can see here, interviewees in The Out List tell one narrative, and it is a tired one we’ve all heard. What might happen if we pause before assuming that one politically-contrived version of outness leads to liberation or that rural places are horrible for LGBTQ people? In Plain Sight suggests that what we need are more nuanced ways of understanding visibility, rurality, and LGBTQ sexuality. The women in our film are out, of course. But many haven’t come out explicitly to everyone in their lives, and few value or practice visibility in the way that Ellen describes.