When a celebrity comes out, we judge. Why is that fair?
As I scrolled through Facebook Wednesday morning, I saw a handful of posts about Barry Manilow coming out as gay. And in most of those posts, people commented either that they were not surprised or they sarcastically said, “I’m shocked.” One commenter said, “What’s next? Will they say Liberace was gay?”
All of the comments I saw from my friends were not meant to be cruel. These are friends who support LGBTQ rights, and some of them identify as queer themselves.
This is how the cycle works: A person who might be assumed to be LGBTQ is considered in the closet until announcing it. Now that Manilow is out as gay, people feel comfortable saying whether they were surprised or not, as if his personal life is a plot that they can comment on like an M. Night Shyamalan movie. It’s all fair game to the masses, who will feel OK judging when he should have come out or whether he should have been in the closet in the first place.
This is not new. This is what happened when Neil Patrick Harris came out in 2006, when Sean Patrick Hayes came out in 2010, and when Anderson Cooper came out in 2012.
The snarky social media posts not only highlight our insatiable need to comment on the lives of the rich and famous, but the dichotomy of experiences between people who are straight and cisgender and people who are not.
Straight and cis is considered the default. There’s no coming out as straight or cisgender. In our society, it’s LGBTQ people who must bear the burden of disclosing their truths. And with that disclosure come the comments, whether you’re famous or not.
My freshman year of college, I dated someone who was worried that my love for Madonna might mean I was gay. I told her that just because I thought Christian Bale was hot, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t attracted to her, too. When I first dated someone of the same sex a few years later, some folks acted as if I had finally come out the closet. Clearly, these people had never watched “American Psycho” with me.
These days, if I had to use a label for myself, I’m most comfortable with queer. It’s the one that seems most honest. I’ve learned over the years that “coming out” is not a one-time event. It comes in many forms: correcting someone’s assumed pronouns about a partner, wearing a shirt that features the rainbow flag, or being tagged in a friend’s photo from a pride parade.
And it can be draining to have to circle back to questions that might arise when I meet new people. If I tell a story about my hilarious ex-boyfriend or a funny ex-girlfriend, I sometimes just say “my friend.” Not because I have any shame about having dated women or men, but because I just don’t know if this person I’m talking to will ask, “So when did you come out? And how did you know?” There are times I can have that conversation, but there are times when I just want to tell a funny story.
There’s no analog: My straight friends never had to be subjected to comments like, “Based on your taste in music alone we always knew you were straight.” My friend can tell a story about her weird ex-husband and no one interrupts her to ask when she knew she was straight.
I know that whenever I am talking with a friend or a new acquaintance about these topics, the questions never come from a place of judgment. But it’s this type of scrutiny — and the idea that others feel entitled to make these comments about our orientation — that gives many queer people anxiety about how to come out in the first place.