If you’ve been on the internet in the past several hours, you may be aware that Ricky Martin has officially come out as gay. As with many official coming outs of the past few years, the vast majority of the reaction has been made up of “duh” and “who cares? His career is already over,” with a decent amount of support and congratulations mixed in.

But dismissing this moment as insignificant or as a desperate ploy for relevance, or even as merely a personal achievement deserving of praise is missing the point. Ricky Martin came out because he felt he needed to, but why? Why is the coming out story so important for our culture to tell?

People who laugh when someone like Ricky Martin, whose sexuality has long been a subject of speculation, comes out are severely underestimating the frenzy that erupts whenever a public figure reveals his or her homosexuality. Sure, many of us already took Martin’s sexuality as fact, considering his evasions of the question and his decision to have two children by a surrogate and raise them himself, but many did not, if the expressions of shock and dismay, particularly from Latin America, are any sign. And no matter how widely assumed a person’s homosexuality may be, in a society like ours which is so insistent on labels, there is a major difference between hushed whispers and jokes and having the phrase “openly gay” forever tacked onto one’s name.

It is an incredibly privileged stance for a straight person, as many of those claiming that Martin’s coming out would only have mattered a decade ago are, to tell a gay person the proper way to come out. Martin in particular, as an icon in Latin America, where homophobia is even more rampant than in the U.S., had many reasons not to be open about his sexuality earlier on, his desire for a successful music career likely chief among them. And Martin, who chose to talk about his orientation on his personal website (which is currently down, probably from a huge increase in traffic) rather than opt for a self-promotional People magazine cover story, clearly is not doing this merely in an attempt to resurrect his career in the States.

So good for Ricky Martin, and also good for Lance Bass, and Clay Aiken, and Meredith Baxter, and all those who came out after the peak of their entertainment careers. An increase in visibility for gay men and lesbians is always a positive step. When J.K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay after the Harry Potter books were completed, it still mattered because readers could think back on their love for this character and associate homosexuality with that affectionate feeling. It can be tremendously influential for a less than tolerant person to think back on performers and people they adored and realized that those people were gay. Because of this, it’s never too late to tell the truth.

But why must homosexuality in our society always be framed around the moment of “coming out?” Why does being “openly gay” matter? Check back soon for Part 2, in which I will struggle to answer these questions.

Creative Commons License photo credit: sarboo