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Let us stop defining people by their sexual orientation

WILL we ever get our noses out of people's bedrooms?

Our continuing obsession with the sexual orientation of others is disturbing. The film star Jodie Foster is the latest celebrity to feel the need to announce she is gay. She came out when receiving the Golden Globes Cecile B DeMille Award for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.

Foster was nervous about imparting the news. Sitting here in the liberal UK we might wonder why – especially when she said her publicist would be even more nervous. This is unexpected in the homeland of Sex and the City.

However a quick glance at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender map of the world (yes, there is one) offers a hint.

The laissez-faire attitudes prevalent in California and on the east coast are not shared across the United States. Same-sex unions are recognised in about 10 states but not by the rest or by the federal government. The same goes for gay couples adopting children.

Is this why Foster played it safe until now? Why risk complications with the studios? Why flag her situation to a potentially hostile world? Besides she's always been private. She said in her speech that being in the public eye since she was three years old had taught her to value privacy above all else.

And in a swipe at our tell-all culture she added: "Some day in the future, people will look back and see how beautiful it was."

So why did she relinquish privacy? Why, at the age of 50 did she decide to tell the world something that is none of the world's business even though it has been a matter of speculation for years?

Maybe she needed to be fully who and what she is. Maybe she was helping to drive a stake through the heart of the hypocrisy that forced Rock Hudson's generation to live a lie: on screen every woman's dream and off screen a gay man.

Even at 50, with a star-studded CV, Foster intimated that the phone might now stop ringing; that her life in future might be quieter.

If that happens I hope the viewing public protest.

We did learn something meaningful about Foster during her speech. She praised the non-famous people who have been her support team throughout her career. She paid tribute to her co-parent and former lover, Cydney Bernard, and she told her mother she loved her. She suggested in an elliptical way, that the old lady has dementia.

What it demonstrated is that Foster is loyal, steadfast and affectionate. Her team has stuck with her for 30 years, so she seems to be decent as well as talented: a person of good character.

Isn't that the measure of a human being? Does anything else matter?

Not to me. I am firmly of the view that where sexual activity involves consenting adults, it is their business only.

But it's a topic our society can't leave alone. Why not? It's not as if there aren't more important issues to distract us.

For example, Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, fed 4000 children and their families on Christmas Day. Many of the young people who go to her are homeless but of those with a home 80% have no bed. All are hungry. We have real social problems, important matters on which surely the churches could take a lead.

Instead they seem fixated on sexuality. The latest edict of the Church of England which permits a man in a civil partnership to become a bishop on condition his partnership is celibate is worthy of Monty Python.

Gay marriage divides even liberals. Just days ago hundreds of thousands of people took to the Paris streets to protest against it.

"It doesn't mean they are anti-gay," someone said to me. I wonder if I'd feel that certain if I was gay.

Homosexuality is legal in China and India but there are no civil partnerships and there's no right to adopt. In much of the Arab world and through swathes of Africa homosexuality is still outlawed. In some countries it can cost you your life.

So while we could greet Foster's statement with a shrug, for her and others like her being gay is still a big deal. It shouldn't be.

There were obvious indications that Foster wasn't romantically interested in men. She did after all conceive her children through IVF and raise them with a female partner. But I rather like the fact that she maintained a silence about her private life.

I thought it would help the next generation to establish a boundary so that however actors like Scarlett Johansson, Reese Witherspoon, Leonardo DiCaprio and the others chose to live was their business only. People shouldn't have to keep walking the same tightrope. Celebrities who are gay shouldn't have to live in fear of exposure.

Actors (or their agents) must fret that they won't get prized parts as conventional romantic leads if the world knows them to be gay. It's ridiculous.

Married, heterosexual Colin Firth, best known as Mr Darcy, was moving and convincing as a broken-hearted gay lover in A Single Man. Just a few weeks ago Derek Jacobi played the romantic lead in Last Tango in Halifax. He was convincing as a widower rediscovering his teenager love. Knowing that in real life he was one of the first men to get a civil partnership detracted nothing from the play. Why would it? A great actor lifts you into the part he or she is playing.

It isn't just actors. It was only during the last Labour Government that politicians felt able to be openly homosexual without fear of career death. Yet it is rank stupidity to equate a man's skill with his sexuality. Just look at Peter Mandelson.

I don't know when we started to define people by their sexual habits instead of by their character. I do know that it's time we grew up and stopped it.

So let's hope Jodie Foster's speech is the last celebrity self-outing. Not because the others need to hide who and what they are, but because the world has learned to mind its own business.

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