Stick two gay strangers in a room for a few hours, and the conversation will inevitably drift to how they came out. "Coming out", however lacking in trauma, is a seismic, "before" and "after" turning point in the lives of all gay and bisexual people. It's a process, rather than a one-off event, and indeed you don't have to come out once; you have to come out all the time. The first phase – and often the most fraught – involves coming out to yourself, which can involve alternating moments of denial, disgust, panic and fear of an uncertain future quite different from that mapped out for everybody else.
Two high-profile outings this week were indicative of the state of play in the struggle for gay equality. The 24-year-old US R&B singer Frank Ocean opted for a short Tumblr blog in which he managed to come out without using the terms "gay" or "bisexual". It was a moving piece, not least because it challenged the still widespread prejudice that being gay is a kind of sordid fetish centred on the exchange of bodily fluids, rather than about the defining – sometimes crippling – feeling of human existence, love.
The other outing – CNN's star anchor Anderson Cooper – was far more troubling. He simply avoided publicly discussing his private life, leading to a co-ordinated campaign to "out" him by the users of the Gawker gossip website, among others. In a self-righteous diatribe this week, Gawker journalist Brian Moylan bragged about his "personal crusade to nudge Cooper slowly out of the closet, whether he wanted to come or not."
It comes from a sense that if you are born gay, you have an automatic responsibility to take a stand about it. Don't get me wrong: well-regarded, prominent individuals coming out challenges the stigma of being gay, and they should be commended when they do so. But individuals cannot be castigated for betraying the struggle for gay rights because of what details of their private life they fail to place on public record. In any case, it is a false view of how LGBT people are emancipated: not through a few celebrities setting an example by strutting around in the public gaze, hand-in-hand with their lovers; but rather through the struggle from below to transform attitudes and change unjust laws. That famous people feel increasingly comfortable about stating their sexuality without fear of their career crashing is the product of the sacrifices and struggles of LGBT activists over decades.
But the very fact that coming out – whether you're a popstar, teacher or a train driver – remains such an event shows how far the struggle for equality has to go. We will have achieved total equality when "coming out" is completely abolished as a process. Being gay will not be seen as a separate, defining identity. The frequent social segregation of LGBT and straight people will be ended. One day, R&B writers will blog about a same-sex lover and no eyebrow will be raised, let alone a headline written.