As a close-enough-to 80’s baby I knew Raven Symoné as adorable Olivia on The Cosby Show. She was like the new Rudy, a yellow skinned toddler beauty to share banter and cute humor with Cliff once his fictional offspring were too old to pull it off. By the time Symoné emerged the star of her own show on Disney Channel, I was too old to pay attention and too distracted to be a fan. Truth be told Raven Symoné has not been on my radar for years, despite her occasional appearance in media for critiques on everything from her weight (gain & loss) to her eye brows.
It is no surprise, then, that when asked if I heard the news about Raven Symoné I had absolutely no context or clue what the news was.
The information was shared matter-of-factly and I responded in kind.
“O,” I stated genuinely surprised but indifferent, “I hadn’t heard.”
It didn’t occur to me all at once that it felt particularly peculiar that I hadn’t heard. But how/why would I? Like I said I hadn’t thought about Raven Symoné in a month of Sundays, but for some reason I felt like if she were a lesbian I would/should have heard. When famous black folk come out people talk–but my newsfeed had been silent about this, my mama (who watches the news nightly) hadn’t told me, my friends hadn’t asked me about it, and my students (from diversity classes) hadn’t sent me links to it.
I thought, for a moment, that perhaps it was just a rumor, like when it was going around that Sinbad died, Michelle Obama was pregnant in the White House, Kimye named the baby Kadence, and Beyoncé was expecting again. Black celebrity news spreads faster than an earthquake, especially when it’s not true. But this was a slow story, which made me think it was a true story.
A quick google search confirmed the information. I smiled and felt almost relieved that it was true. Good for her, I thought. But why hadn’t I heard?
She came out quietly, subtly, and without fanfare. She didn’t call a press conference, book a talk show appearance, or make some apologetic or grand gesture or announcement. In a public tweet in response to same sex marriage legislation she wrote, “I can finally get married! Yay government! So proud of you.”
In a skype conversation with a former student we discussed the politics of coming out and whether or not we should celebrate or question the non-issue of Symoné’s disclosure. On one hand I think it is heartening that someone who is somewhat iconic in the black community can self-identify as nonheterosexual and it not be a big deal. On the other hand I wonder if there are not everyday blackgirls who are questioning or struggling with coming to terms with who they are that might not be empowered by the revelation and encouraged by the publicity.
And then I wonder if the quiet around it is really about privacy… is it really about newsworthiness? Or is it the silencing of a black woman’s voice? Is it about community accountability, shame and wishing she would have kept that secret in the closet? Is it about denying her the space or room to tell her story (from a PR perspective) or not really wanting to hear it (as fans/community)? If she were white, or a man, would it be a big/ger story? Should it be? Or is it (as I wish it was) simply a non-issue and none of our damn business? Further is it fair to put the burden or responsibility of representing black lesbianism on one woman, who is only one of precious few ‘out’ black actresses (can you name an openly gay black actress in Hollywood–other than Wanda Sykes)?
I want to think that it doesn’t matter (how or if she chose to disclose her identity) but the truth of the matter is homophobia is as real as racism in the black community and we oftentimes intentionally keep quiet about the nonheterosexuality of our best and brightest. That silence rings loud and creates a hostile and dangerous environment for folk who don’t fit the mythical norm to be their authentic and full selves.
In a perfect world, with all things equal, difference would be valued instead of evaluated. Truth is when folk announce or identify themselves as themselves there should not be a parade. It should not be newsworthy. But we don’t live in a perfect world. What we do live in is a heteronormative society that requires people to have to come out (or be labeled heterosexual). We assume that folk are heterosexual unless and until they tell us otherwise. This means, essentially, that sexuality always matters because people make assumptions and claims about who/what you are… and in order to quiet the assumptions you have to come out… and because assumptions of heterosexuality are so inherent and deeply ingrained folk have to keep coming out (ongoing process)… I imagine it is exhausting and anti-climactic.
Still I am conflicted on how I feel about Symoné’s silence. She has neither formally or publicly confirmed or denied her sexual orientation which leaves room for speculation. Some folk believe her tweet may not be about being a lesbian but rather an ally (who would not be willing to marry unless all people can legally marry). Some folk read her silence as embarrassment, shame or regret.
Last year, in response to rumors about her sexuality and reported relationship with another woman Symoné reiterated her right to privacy, stating: “… that is my right as a human being whether straight or gay. To tell or not to tell. As long as I’m not harming anyone…my career is the only thing I would like to put on display, not my personal life.”
The fact remains that there are risks and consequences to being black, a woman, and at the mercy of public approval. As an entertainer her livelihood is very much at the whim of an audience that (thanks to the culture of reality TV and TMZ) expects to have access to her thoughts, intentions and bedroom.
Two weeks out from the tweet read around the world and the streets are still not really talking. Part of me (the part that appreciates privacy and agency) celebrates the ambiguity and quiet around the “announcement,” but part of me (the part that feels there is strength in numbers and witnessing and situating standpoints) is waiting for Raven to fill in the blanks. But I am not sure she should have to.
What are your thoughts on Raven Symoné’s quiet announcement?