Why does the media assume queer celebrities are straight until proven otherwise?
Imagine you’ve got a massive mole on your face. Whether or not you’re cool with the mole, it’s there, and it can’t be covered up. And you know that people can see it; they look right at it when they talk to you. In your mind, there’s no reason to mention it, since everyone knows it’s there. Except people are always asking you about it, hinting at it, in roundabout ways.
“Have you ever considered plastic surgery?” they ask, boring a hole into the growth on your face for which you are not responsible. “What do you think about your appearance? Anything out of the ordinary, that makes you different?” They ask you questions until finally, in a fit of rage and exhaustion, you burst: “YES, I HAVE A MASSIVE MOLE ON MY FACE. RIGHT THERE. SEE IT? I KNOW YOU DO. GLAD THAT’S SETTLED. NOW WE CAN MOVE ON.”
That’s kinda what it’s like to be a “not officially out” queer celebrity under the hairsplitting gaze of the media.
I’ll start by saying it’s incredibly important for queer celebrities to project visibility. By readily claiming labels like “queer” or “bisexual,” they offer up an image of survival and success for queer kids to pin to their vision board. There is life-and-death power in saying unambiguously, unapologetically, “I’m gay.”
What’s frustrating — and almost a separate issue — is the media’s coverage of queer celebrities who have not said those exact words into a megaphone. These people may have been openly living their lives, photographed with their partners and name-dropping them in interviews, but it’s as if they must wear a big “I AM A HOMO” sign on a red carpet à la Shia LaBeouf’s brown paper bag, or host a press conference solely to confirm their sexuality, to be considered “out.”
Take the recent interview in Vulture with Orphan Black’s Jordan Gavaris. In it, he’s asked about his sexuality, and Gavaris says he’s gay. He also says he’s been out since he was 19 (Gavaris is now 27), and goes on to offer insightful perspectives on the cultural currency of beauty, the demonization of femininity, and how rad women are. Instead of reporting on the thoughtful nuances of the conversation between Gavaris and the reporter, though, many publications latched on to the single question about Gavaris’s sexuality, and proclaimed he had just come out of the closet.
The man has been openly dating men since he was 19.
What the majority of the press misses in its reporting is that the closet is a construct. In our society, sexuality is structured according to the idea that if you’re gay and “out,” you’re honest — but if you’re “in,” you’re ashamed or deceitful, and that there is no in-between. Click-me-first headlines about celebrities “coming out” feeds into this binary thinking, which overlooks people who are already living full, out lives — whether or not they’ve publicly declared anything. What these stories fail to capture is the complex, genre-defying experience of being human.
Critics made much ado about Jodie Foster’s 2013 Golden Globes speech, in which she essentially came out.
But by not explicitly saying, “I’m gay,” they argued, Foster had chickened out and shirked responsibility to her community. If you read her speech through a less traditionalist lens, her coming out embodies the shame, discomfort, and uncertainty that often attaches itself to such an announcement. As a New York Times columnist pointed out, “Sometimes we ‘ramble’; sometimes we’re ‘disjointed’; but it’s the raw kernel of honesty that matters.” The columnist also noted that Foster had mentioned her partner six years earlier, but apparently that was “too subtle to be recorded as the definitive coming out” (shade-level: Pete Souza).
Younger generations are resisting the antiquated coming out narrative. Kristen Stewart is a poster child of refusing to conform to such demands. After Robert Pattinson, she was photographed with women — and not just in a “gal pal” way — and she said things like, “When I was dating a guy.” This, and still the press did not let up in its quest to confirm what they already knew. Stewart’s response?
When Stewart made The Announcement on SNL, she softened its punchy headline power and delivered it with a bit of queer lady coolness: “I’m, like, so gay, dude.” Later, she told The London Sunday Times, “wasn’t this grand statement, but rather, it “just seemed important, and topical.”
Unfortunately, we are not yet at a place where sexuality doesn’t make news, because labels still matter. They are the words by which some people are deemed unfit for protection against workplace discrimination, or banned from using the bathroom they need to use. We can’t even get a cake without it becoming a Supreme Court case. But it doesn’t mean we can’t strive for a world in which there’s not a need for labels.
The media should loosen its grip on rigid, outmoded ways of thinking. Don’t boil down queer celebrities’ lives to an eyeball-grabbing nugget. Expand and challenge our worldviews. Instead of plodding in autopilot along closeted/not-closeted dichotomies, recognize the mushiness of being human. Clicks equal money, which means it’s unlikely “OMG HE FINALLY ADMITTED HE’S GAY!” headlines will end anytime soon, but opening up the conversation to reflect the myriad identities we inhabit is a worthy goal.