In the flurry of media coverage detailing Diana Nyad’s record-breaking swim from Cuba to Florida earlier this week, a plethora of publications, including The Advocate and the LGBTQ news blog I run, GayWrites, referred to Nyad as openly gay.
While it is perfectly true that Diana is out, a few commenters in the blogosphere weren’t thrilled that some media outlets mentioned her sexual orientation, as it’s not directly relevant to her achievement. They spared me the hate mail this time, but I did receive a slew of frustrated responses:
“This is amazing and all, but why do people feel the need to add that she’s ‘openly gay’? What does that got to do with anything?”
“Would the headline say ‘black swimmer’ or ‘straight swimmer’? Her sexual orientation does not make this any more, or any less, of an achievement. The impressive part is swimming 110 miles at age 64.”
“Who cares that she’s ‘openly gay’? She just made history.”
I agree with them in a lot of ways. Diana’s sexual orientation certainly does not make her accomplishment more or less impressive. And you’re right that you probably wouldn’t see headlines calling Diana a “black swimmer,” if she were — though for different reasons — and certainly not calling her a “straight swimmer.” So why does it matter?
It matters because if we don’t mention that Diana Nyad is gay, it will be assumed that she’s straight. And assumed heterosexuality — and queer erasure and the institutional heteronormativity that ensues — is one of the biggest barriers to LGBTQ visibility, and one of the most silencing. We should be celebrating that Diana Nyad is one of us, even if it’s not the central focus of the story, because to ignore it would be to reaffirm the backward idea that queerness is a shameful thing to acknowledge, let alone discuss.
We’re a generation curious enough to have learned that some of the most influential figures of our time were LGBTQ — even though most of us didn’t learn that information in high school. We get rightfully angry when our identities are brushed off as phases or fetishes or choices, or, conversely, when we are made out to be nothing but our sexual orientation or gender identity. Who are we to ignore that Diana’s sexuality is a valid, important component of her being, working in tandem with all the other parts of her that made her into the person she is?
When Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was “outed” posthumously after she passed away last year, the Internet went wild debating whether she had “come out too late” to make a difference. Newsweek’s Linda Hirshman offered a particularly critical take:
The 27 years she shared with her “partner” were critical to the triumphant gay revolution. As activists around her made the world better, her world got better, too. But instead of pulling her weight, she was free riding.
Maybe “free rider” is too harsh. But even if Sally Ride did not do something wrong, she missed a chance to do something right. In the epic story of the gay revolution, she was oh, so private. She could have made the nation say “gay.”
While her partner and her family said she hadn’t come out publicly because she preferred to maintain her privacy — and because being openly gay could have jeopardized her career — it seems to have been universally agreed upon that it’s important that she was gay. Sally Ride’s “coming-out” taught LGBTQ people, youth in particular, that your sexual orientation or gender identity does not have to bar you from great opportunities, even when taking the chance is risky.
It was even clearer that identity is significant when Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple a couple years back, potentially making him the most powerful gay man in America and one of the most powerful people, gay or straight, in the country. Media raged over whether to mention that Tim Cook is gay, at least according to several news outlets, naturally bringing Cook’s sexuality to the forefront of discussion. Summing it up perfectly, Felix Salmon of Reuters wrote:
There’s no ethical dilemma when it comes to reporting on Cook’s sexuality: rather, the ethical dilemma comes in not reporting it, thereby perpetuating the idea that there’s some kind of stigma associated with being gay. Yes, the stigma does still exist in much of society. But it’s not the job of the press to perpetuate it. Quite the opposite.
We must not do to Diana Nyad what decades of history books have done to Bayard Rustin, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and hundreds of others. If we don’t point out to our parents, grandparents, friends, and neighbors that people like Diana are LGBTQ, it will be much harder to convince them that LGBTQ people exist outside the confines of stereotypes that have long been forced upon them and upon us. And what’s worse, we’ll be implying that we don’t want to talk about it.
Before the Tim Cook debacle even began, Fawny.blog’s Joe Clark penned a gem I wish I could have written:
When you tell us it’s wrong to report on gay public figures, you are telling gays not to come out of the closet and journalists not to report the truth. (What you’re telling us as gay journalists is even worse.)
When you insist being gay couldn’t possibly matter less, what you actually insist is that the subject never be brought up in the first place.
One day, it will not matter whether Diana Nyad, Tim Cook, Sally Ride, or any other noteworthy person is openly gay. But we’re not there yet. Until we are, it is our responsibility as LGBTQ people to remind the rest of the world that we’re still here, we’re comfortable in our own skins, we come in all shapes, sizes and specialties, and, once in a blue moon, some of us can even swim from Cuba to Florida. We should be proud to say so.
CAMILLE BEREDJICK is the digital communications assistant at the Gay Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, and a former Advocate intern. She lives in New York. She blogs at GayWrites.org.