I admit, in May, when a Variety cover story suggested that the gorgeous and brilliant actress Cate Blanchett might harbor same-sex desires, I was as aflame as any other red-blooded American dyke.
Imagine my disappointment when, at the Cannes Film Festival a few days later, she claimed that the reporter had misrepresented their conversation. In fact, she’s not had sexual relations with women. That revelation wasn’t as surprising, though, as the contempt she seemed to express toward gays who, in her view, make their sexualities too public and central to their identities.
Discussing Carol, her new film based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, which chronicles a love affair between two women in 1950s New York City, Blanchett told the press at Cannes that Carol’s “sexuality is a private affair,” adding with perceptible disdain: “What happens these days is if you are homosexual, you have to talk about it constantly; it has to be the only thing; you have to put it before your work, before any other aspect of your personality.” Perhaps Blanchett was decrying conservative culture’s obsessive focus on sexual identity over other meaningful aspects of personhood. Or perhaps not. In the Variety article, her words similarly smacked of scorn: “[Carol’s] sexuality isn’t politicized. I think there are a lot of people that exist … who don’t feel the need to shout it from the rafters.”
For someone so articulate and intelligent, Blanchett’s comments seem ignorant—even, ironically, homophobic. Carol Aird’s sexuality can’t accurately be called apolitical or private. In 1952, the same year the American Psychiatric Association dubbed homosexuality “a sociopathic personality disturbance,” the cultural space to affirmatively and freely assert a lesbian or bisexual identity within a thriving subculture didn’t exist. It was the pre-Stonewall, pre-women’s lib, pre-sexual revolution, conformist ’50s, and the cost of an out queer existence was high. A woman engaging in a same-sex affair risked losing her children in divorce proceedings, as Carol does in the film. If she had a job, especially a government job, she’d almost certainly be terminated. If she was a student, she could get kicked out of college. She’d become a pariah in most milieus, and her family would likely disown her. Why else would Highsmith publish the book under a pseudonym in 1952? It bears mentioning that Highsmith based Carol, in part, on a lover who lost custody of her daughter, including visitation rights, because of a lesbian affair.
More important, what Blanchett experiences as homosexuality’s loud self-assertion is a faint whisper next to the roar of heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is so pervasive, so normalized, so assumed that it moves through the world imperceptibly, an unquestioned fact of life. It infuses, informs, and organizes every aspect of our society and culture: movies, including every single one of Blanchett’s (even Carol), TV shows, songs, and commercials. Homosexuality, that overly expressed and privacy-adverse identity Blanchett sneers at for being so public, is a tiny red dot on a massive canvas of stark white, calling attention to itself by the mere fact of its deviation from its overwhelmingly straight surroundings.
It’s true that visibility is a big part of the queer ethos. If Blanchett grew up having to hide and deny her most tender affections, she, too, might be inclined to “shout it from the rafters” after years of shame, self-censorship, and social-erasure. LGBTQ people understand experientially, in a way that someone of her stature and privilege never will, that invisibility and silence do indeed equal death, both symbolically and literally. During the AIDS crisis, for example, had the LGBTQ community not publicly affirmed their identities, bound megaphones to their mouths, and stormed the streets to rouse an apathetic government and society, AIDS casualties would far exceed the staggering—harrowing—39 million who’ve died from the virus to date worldwide. And all the rights we’ve secured—civil unions, anti-hate crime legislation, gay adoption, marriage, and so on—could not have been won without our “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used to It” edict.
While Blanchett seems partial to the Zeitgeist’s renunciation of labels, which does seem to be the next iteration of liberation and is a popular form of self-presentation in Hollywood these days—see: Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus, Raven-Symoné, Cara Delevingne, etc.—it’s an uncontestable fact that the freedom to reject categories of sexual identification rests entirely on the shoulders of those who risked the costs of coming out L, G, B, or T in eras when it meant severe social, professional, and legal repercussions, as well as bodily harm. (As Blanchett herself noted at Cannes, being queer remains a crime in more than 70 countries; and the risk of physical harm, especially for transgender people, is an ever-present threat in many parts of America.) If today’s LGBTQ people can choose not to parade down avenues announcing their existence, that’s a luxury their brave forebears earned for them by making their queerness public and integral to who they are.
All this to say: I completely believe that Blanchett’s conversation was misrepresented and that she doesn’t bat for the girls’ team. Someone with a queer consciousness would never scoff at a marginalized community for speaking out loudly and proudly, even constantly.