It's quite shocking how Ricky Martin's "coming out" announcement this week has been handled. Along with the support was indifference and criticism for taking so long to tell the truth. It demonstrates how little we really understand about the pressure of coming out - and how far we still have to go before being gay is accepted in our society.
Most fail to see the music industry for the beast that it is - one that strives to shift as many units to as wide an audience as possible. It seems rational to argue the poplarity of Elton John, George Michael or Michael Stipe - which should appease any fears that the industry may have about gay popstars. But we forget that these individuals also hid their sexuality for years until their fanbase was sufficient enough to protect their ability to continue to have a career.
You may think times have changed, and so the pressure or fear on artists coming out should be minimised. However, George Michael started as a teen idol, and so did Ricky Martin. His sense of self - and indeed the brand created around him as sex symbol - is positioned within this market. Those that dismiss Martin's actions this week as cowardice due to coming out so late in his career neglect this fact.
We like to believe we exist in a liberal, tolerant world, and using the handful of mainstream artists who are open about their sexuality to support this is purely confirmation bias. It is the equivalent of assuming there is universal racial equality because there is finally a black President in the White House. In fact we know that prejudice continues to exist - and while society has moved significantly, equality is still not the norm. Indeed one only needs to look at Ricky Martin's primary audience - North/Latin America - to see that being gay is not accepted by the majority.
The industry also does little to stamp out prejudice. Radio One DJ Chris Moyles can hold a primetime position on the air despite re-introducing "gay" as derogatory playground slang. From personal experience I can assure you having a label named "Gaymonkey" within a heterosexual male dominated industry has rarely won us favours.
However, any artist could choose to rise above these obstacles, to put fear of retribution aside and ignore the prejudice that still exists in society. There are still two main reasons why a new artist today would choose to hide their sexuality:
To avoid being labelled as niche
If your ego - and the industry - expects you to be instantly huge, it will not be satisfied with a niche audience. A "gay artist" has traditionally found themselves building their career within the gay community. Greedy egos and labels strive to bypass this step and aim straight for the mainstream.
This pressure will continue until long tail thinking is encouraged and major labels discontinue the practice of dropping artists who fail to reach the top ten with their first release. Until then, no level of perceived acceptance will satisfy an artist whose intention is to be an instant superbrand.
To have your art accepted for what it is
For those that can quell the ego, a further barrier exists. While they themselves may have no apparent problem with being labelled as gay, they believe their art stands outside this and wish their creation to be judged on merit without bias on either side to their sexuality.
Aside from the blatant prejudice that continues to be rife within the sports community, athletes must also consider this factor to be one that stops them from coming out. No one with dreams of being a top footballer would like to be remembered as a "gay footballer". Our visions of our legacy shape our present reality - and for the ambitious the choice to come out will be influenced by this factor.
Until every musician, athlete, actress, teacher, politician and parent feels that their opportunities in life will not be threatened by how society perceives and labels them, we must only be proud of everyone who has the courage to step forward despite whatever makes them different. Each individual that takes that leap makes it easier for the next. Ricky Martin is a leader - and should be applauded as such.