Anyone who’s gone through it knows that you never come out just once. There are the bigger moments — coming out to your parents, maybe, or to best friends or classmates or co-workers — but there are the quotidian ones, too. A lesbian lets her gynecologist know why she doesn’t need any birth control right now, thanks but no thanks. A bisexual man, swallowing his horror, tells a presumptive waiter that the guy he’s sharing some fried calamari with is his boyfriend, not his brother. A nonbinary pansexual person dating a cisgender guy explains a million times over that even if their relationship looks straight from the outside, they’re actually super fucking queer.
Just as often as LGBT people slog through these little everyday coming-outs, however, many choose certain moments to remain quietly, but assuredly, in. We decide to let our landlords assume our partners are just roommates. We don’t disclose our gender identity or our sexual orientation at a bar when being heckled by an aggressive drunk. We let grandmothers and bosses and pastors assume we’re something we are not, out of love or a simple desire to keep the peace, or to assure our safety.
Coming out is LGBT 101 at this point. There couldn’t be a more boring question than “When did you come out?” or “When did you know?” — yet queer people are asked both constantly. These questions are, of course, dumb and reductive, because no one could possibly offer a single clear-cut answer: Out versus In is not a binary, but a lifelong series of strange and shifting negotiations.
Though Ellen’s “Yep, I’m gay” cover may always be the coming-out of all coming-outs, an enormous and explicit public declaration has never been the extent of the practice for celebs or us normals. The supposed closets in which many of us crouched as children (and beyond) are not fixed and finite, nor or they identical for everyone. For some — butch dykes, gender-nonconforming femmes — the closet was never really there at all. It’s an overused and radically unhelpful metaphor. And yet Coming Out still remains broadly defined in the way it was for Ellen, and long before her: as a status, spoken. As a before and after. Charlie Carver, the Teen Wolf actor who publicly came out last week on Instagram, summed it up in a tweet: “I am one of a community that has to announce itself to be known.” But now – as more people are embracing the concept of sexual fluidity, some even refusing to label their orientations at all — is that announcement really still necessary?
Richard Shotwell/Invision / AP)
In a heteronormative world full of people who assume that everyone is straight and cisgender unless a bomb of queer signifiers blows up in their face, public declarations remain the only surefire way to convey queerness to a vast number of people. Carver has been one of a number of young stars to publicly announce their sexual orientation on social media in the last few weeks. His message was spread over five Instagram posts of the same image: a sign reading “Be who you needed when you were younger.” Two weeks ago, the brilliant 17-year-old actor Amandla Stenberg took over Teen Vogue’s Snapchat to advocate for a world in which everyone sees themselves reflected in the media, sharing that she identifies "as a black, bisexual woman." Colton Haynes, an actor on Arrow (as well as Teen Wolf, alongside Charlie Carver), wrote an extremely ambiguous response on his Tumblr to a post referencing his “secret gay past.” “Was it a secret?” he wrote. “Let’s all just enjoy life & have no regrets :)” It definitely wasn’t a coming-out, but it wasn’t quite a denial, either.
While splashy cover stories used to be a popular option for famous gays ready to take the coming-out plunge — from Ellen’s Time cover in 1997 to Lance Bass’s People cover in 2006 — messages spread through a celebrity’s own social media platforms demonstrate the growing irrelevance of major media when it comes to celebs’ personal announcements, a trend John Herrman thoroughly documented in The Awl last month. While old-school coming-outs still do happen — Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy revealed that he identifies as gay in ESPN The Magazine last October, and Caitlyn Jenner’s highly contentious Vanity Fair cover will likely go down in history as the most famous iteration of the genre — covers look stodgy and conventional when celebs can now reach teens without the filters of publishers and PR people between them. Snapchat feels friendly and intimate; a magazine cover is a publicity statement.
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But among celebrities announcing their queerness, whether ostentatiously in Big Media or through chiller routes like tweets or ’grams, there are plenty who eschew official admissions altogether. On the Death, Sex & Money podcast last December, actor Holland Taylor told host Anna Sale: “I haven’t come out because I am out. I live out.” The concurrent news that she’s dating fellow actor Sarah Paulson boggled the minds of many, even though both women had been publicly affectionate IRL and on social media for months. Taylor’s not-coming-out recalled Jodi Foster’s famously confusing speech at the 2013 Oscars, as well as Kristen Stewart’s August cover story in Nylon, throughout which the interviewer was clearly fishing for some sort of sexuality pronouncement. “I don’t feel like it would be true for me to be like, ‘I’m coming out!’” Stewart said, as well as: “Google me. I’m not hiding.”
And she wasn’t. At least by then. All summer, Stewart was constantly photographed by the paparazzi holding hands with her live-in girlfriend at the time, Alicia Cargile. But, as my very smart colleague Kate Aurthur wrote in an essay last June, “when [Stewart] started dating a woman, it was as if she had suddenly become invisible.” All photographic evidence of intimacy to the contrary, Stewart and Cargile were labeled “gal pals” and “BFFs” by the same tabloids that had put the minutiae of her dating life with men on blast. Stewart was, as always, incredibly visible in the media — much more so than she would like — but her rather overt queerness went unnoticed.
Queer women, in particular, are constantly assumed to be straight, with their romantic relationships belittled as friendships or phases or performances for horny heterosexual men. While Stewart’s queer cred has been glaringly obvious to lesbians everywhere for years, there are still plenty of clueless straight people out there who — not knowing where to look or even to look — still think of Stewart as the ex-girlfriend of Robert Pattinson and that English film director. Which is not Stewart’s fault, or her responsibility. The onus shouldn’t be on queer people to declare their otherness over and over.
Still, in her Nylon interview, Stewart went further than just refusing to come out on someone else’s terms. “If you feel like you really want to define yourself, and you have the ability to articulate those parameters and that in itself defines you, then do it,” she said, adding: “Until I decide that I’m starting a foundation or that I have some perspective or opinion that other people should be receiving…I don’t. I’m just a kid making movies.”
It was a rather strange implication — that, for her, to come out would mean she was taking up the mantle of queer activism, potentially lumped in with the likes of Ellen Page, whose own coming-out speech in 2014 at an HRC event was undeniably inspired by a social consciousness. Stewart also seemed to think that, were she to give herself a label, it would supersede the one label she does care about (“I am an actress, man”). It’s a fair worry: The further anyone is from being a straight white cisgender man, the more they face pigeonholing in their careers. But those who can avoid self-identifying with a marginalized label by blending in with the majority do hold a particular privilege over those who can’t — particularly trans women of color, who, in their hyper-visibility, are targets for epidemic levels of violence.
Stewart’s comments share a certain kind of derision with Cate Blanchett’s at the Cannes Film Festival last May. A Variety cover story quoted Blanchett as having been in past relationships with women “many times,” but Blanchett later claimed the reporter had taken her words out of context. “Sexuality is a private affair,” she told Cannes reporters. “What happens these days is if you are homosexual, you have to talk about it constantly; it has to be the only thing; you have to put it before your work, before any other aspect of your personality.” (Stephanie Fairyington shut down this rather ridiculous presumption in Slate: “What Blanchett experiences as homosexuality’s loud self-assertion is a faint whisper next to the roar of heterosexuality.”) And then there was Matt Damon giving some acting advice in The Guardian last September. “Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play,” he said — a curious instruction, since he personally makes no effort to deny the fact that he’s married to a woman. Damon, Blanchett, and Stewart can’t seem to conceive of a world wherein someone can own up to being gay without their gayness taking over every aspect of their personhood and professionalism — or at least, without the media assuming as much.
Kristen Stewart, Amandla Stenberg, Charlie Carver
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After the Nylon interview, Stewart was championed as someone who refuses to publicly label herself. Denouncing labels when it comes to sexual orientation is au courant, for what is probably a conflation of many reasons. The average coming-out age has been radically dropping, and many young people are taking the much-needed time to figure themselves out and explore before closing in on a name for their sexuality, should they ever. Back in August, when 16-year-old Lily-Rose Depp posed for the Self Evident Truths Project, a portrait series of thousands of Americans who identify as “not 100% straight,” the headlines declared she’d come out as such. Last week, Girl Meets World actor Rowan Blanchard tweeted that she’s also joined the No Labels camp, saying that even though she has “only ever liked boys,” she doesn’t want to identify “as straight gay or whateva,” nor does she want to give herself “labels to stick with.” The 14-year-old is interested in “just existing.”
For the young and questioning, No Labels/Anything but Straight offers a hallowed space for self-discovery in those very confusing early years of sex and dating. But many believe — even hope — that this trend is much bigger than young people finding themselves. An increasingly popular hypothesis about fluidity and queerness predicts that we’re all hurtling toward a future of sexual fluidity, when all labels will be collapsed into meaninglessness. One such study propagating this theory, out of the University of Essex last November, claimed that “women are either bisexual or gay, but “never straight.” (It was widely criticized; one of the best shakedowns came from Anna Pulley in The Cut, who points out that just because women are biologically turned on by stimuli doesn’t mean their brains are always on the same page.)
Another poll, conducted by YouGov in August 2015, used the six-point Kinsey scale to determine that 1 in 3 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 “plot themselves as something other than exclusively heterosexual.” Of that same American demographic group, however, 84% identify as heterosexual — which means that, presumably, of the 31% who didn’t plot themselves as completely straight, roughly half identify as straight regardless.