Tom, Anderson, Pinki: The new sexual inquisition

by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy

In the good old days, we were entirely consumed with the sex lives of celebrities — their affairs, flings and dangerous liaisons. Today, we're obsessed with something much more fundamental — other people's sexual identity. And they don't have to be boldface names. Over the past couple of days, three very different people — Tom Cruise, Anderson Cooper and Pinki Pramanik — made news for different reasons, but the spark of prurient curiosity was the same. Each exposed a different aspect of our pathological need to know: Are you gay or straight? A man or a woman? In the closet or out?

First up was Tom Cruise whose third divorce ignited a twitter storm of gay jokes. "It's the end of Tom Cruise's third marriage—or, as I like to call it, "Mission: Impossible III" tweeted a sly Ben Greenman. "Tom Cruise is not going to find another woman that looks like a beautiful 22-year-old man," chimed in a more obvious Eugene Mirrman.

The headline on Gawker.com said it all: "Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes Divorcing Because They Couldn’t Fake Being In Love Forever and Plus She’s Not a Dude."

Tom Cruise is not a right wing conservative politician who has made it his life’s mission to demonise homosexuals. He might belong to a church with twisted views about homosexuality but that’s his personal choice. But that matters little to the snicker mill.

There's a weird presumptuousness about people's sexual identity — an assumed right to know, usually masquerading as sexual liberalism. In an inquisition you had to confess to your sins. In our more 'enlightened' times you have to confess to prove that you don’t think of it as some heinous shameful sin. Anderson Cooper finally came out this week. He came out on his own, instead of being outed, but only after years of being hounded by nosy questions in almost every media interview he ever gave. The same folks at Gawker published photos of his boyfriend back in 2009 and details of their romantic Jaipur holiday together with the headline : "Anderson Cooper is a giant homosexual and everyone knows it."

Never mind Cooper's desire to keep his personal life, well, personal. Because as Gawker writer Louis Peltzman triumphantly informs us, there is no right to privacy when it comes to our sexual orientation: "A celebrity's right to privacy in terms of whom he or she dates is respectable (regardless of how difficult it is to maintain in an era of TMZ). But coming out doesn't mean introducing the world to your significant other, or letting everyone know whether you prefer to top or bottom in bed."

Cooper did not pretend he was not gay. He just chose not to talk about it. But the Gawkers of the world point fingers at Cooper saying he lives in a “see through closet.” AP

This is an example of how self-entitled we've become on the matter of other people's sexual identity. We will grudgingly give you the right to be private about the actual sex act but not the gender of your partner. That you must announce as if on a customs declaration form because otherwise you will give, as Anderson Cooper says, “the mistaken impression” that it makes you “uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid.”

Cooper did not pretend he was not gay. He just chose not to talk about it. But the Gawkers of the world point fingers at Cooper saying he lives in a “see through closet.” Cooper prefers to say he just wants to “maintain some level of privacy.” With his coming out letter to Andrew Sullivan he seized the bull by the horns and put an end to the gay rumour mill. The gay or not gay guessing games may be fun for its participants – who come from across the sexuality spectrum – but that doesn't make it any less disturbing, as writer Amy Sohn notes:

Gay-gossip is the newest and most clever form of homophobia: it lets us judge and mock rumored gays under the guise of being liberated. If I think Kevin Spacey is gay and roll my eyes during his sex scenes, I can always pass my behavior off as gay-friendly: “Why doesn’t Kevin love himself enough to admit who he really is?” But by obsessing over his sexuality instead of judging him as a performer, I’m engaging in the precise form of homophobia that gays and lesbians despise — judging them by their orientation instead of their personhood. At the same time, I’m exhibiting a double standard: how can I defend the late Princess Diana’s right to privacy regarding her love life while at the same time chastising gay-rumored stars for staying silent about their own?

The snickering over Tom's and Cooper’s sexuality is part of a now well-established celebrity gossip culture that mainly centres on "outing" celebrities — who may or may not be gay. Gays-spotting is now a staple topic on online forums , and everyone from George Clooney to that Twilight guy can be gleefully labeled according to whim. And yeah, it's always the good-looking ones who are secretly and conveniently gay or bisexual. It does not just happen in Hollywood. There are plenty of similar rumours about our A-list male stars, except they are never, ever publicly circulated due to fear of retaliation.

But in case we think our sexual repression saves us from such prurient smugness, we now have that appalling MMS of Pinki Pramanik remind us otherwise. Under scrutiny for rape charges — which have morphed into a police-ordered probe into her gender — Asiad medalist Pramanik underwent a court-ordered gender determination test. The result: an MMS that supposedly shows a naked Pramanik undergoing tests at the hospital that has now gone viral.

The issue here is not the necessity of a gender test. As noted before on Firstpost.com, in the Indian penal code only a man can rape a woman and it requires penetration. But the medical test has become a fig leaf behind which prurience can run rampant. Police officers merrily handed out video clips filmed secretly by Pramanik’s accuser to the media. Now even her medical test in a hospital is not private.

“I have never been subjected to such humiliation and harassment in my life,” said a despairing Pramanik said after the test.

It may seem outrageous to compare a Pinki to a Tom to an Anderson. But in one way or another, each person's sexuality was deemed "suspicious" or "hidden"; a dirty "secret" that required a public witch-hunt, whether through MMS or Gawker, to expose their true self to our hungry eyes.