It is often easy to forget, cocooned in my network of queer blogs and websites, that not everybody shares my reaction to a celebrity coming out.
Obviously, I do not mean those on the extremely conservative right. If we ever share an opinion regarding the LGBTQ+ community, I think I will pass out from shock. No, I mean the general public, who respond in various ways to celebrities publicly coming out. This was particularly apparent over Valentine’s weekend, following Ellen Page’s declaration that she is gay, during a speech to the HRC’s ‘Time to Thrive’ conference, on February 14th.
While social media feeds were filled with naught but congratulations and praise for Ellen, the rest of the internet devolved into a forum for the world to debate how it felt about such a personal statement, albeit one given very publicly.
The problems with the former can be addressed fairly easily. I, along with many other queer people, have often received such a response upon coming out, yet it seems people fail to appreciate that it can be rather problematic. Some undoubtedly mean it as a form of acceptance, verbal shorthand for “hey, I knew all along and am perfectly comfortable with that knowledge!”
Yet it threatens to devalue the (sometimes emotionally fraught) process of self-identification through which queer people have progressed. Coming out can be a big event for queer individuals and responses such as “I knew it” can appear dismissive. Just because they are aimed at a famous actress, rather than your best friend, it does not make them less negative.
This was clearly a hugely intimidating and important for Ellen, and for thousands of people to say how they had already known, it brushes off the journey she has taken to reach this point where she feels able to talk about her sexuality publicly.
Of course, there is the other glaring problem with phrases such as “I knew it” – how did you know? What made you look at Ellen and decide that she was most definitely gay? Certainly, life would be easier if we had some sort of warning device, but unfortunately you have just got to play a guessing game unless we decide to tell you.
As for the latter response, if “I knew it” can be perceived as dismissive, “who cares?” is far worse. How many of us have dropped that phrase in the middle of argument to brush someone off? It is rude at the best of times; yet questioning who cares when someone comes out diminishes the importance of that declaration in much the same way as claiming a prior knowledge does. Everybody has experienced belittlement and knows how awful that feels.
The liberal media may not view queerness as something about which to be alarmed, but one only needs to look at the waves made by Michael Sam, the American college football player who has recently come out, to see that it is still an issue.
Others have interpreted this differently. Time ran an interesting article suggesting that the “who cares?” theme is a sign of how far society has progressed, how declarations such as Ellen’s are no longer seen as controversial. Without wanting to call out the author as wrong, surely the very fact that we have to come out suggests this is still an issue?
It seems that the overwhelming majority of those questioning “who cares?” were straight. Indeed, many accompanied their queries with ridiculous comments about how they were ‘coming out as straight’. A few years ago, these comments would have irritated me, but now I just wanted to pat them on the head and tell them they missed the point entirely.
Our society assumes you are straight until proven otherwise. It is called ‘heteronormativity’ and is still very much present. When a public figure comes out, they counter this tendency to assume everyone is heterosexual. Ellen said herself that she was tired of “lying by omission”; by not actively stating that she was not, people just assumed that she was straight.
Also, to the people who question why Ellen coming out is important: she did not come out for you. If she came out for anyone (besides herself, obviously), it was queer people, queer young people especially. While more people have come out recently, there is a startling lack of high profile gay figures in the media and consequently very few gay role models to which younger people can look to.
If there is even one Juno-loving teenager out there who is ashamed of their sexuality but has drawn comfort from Ellen’s words, then that is why it is important. That is why we celebrate people coming out; that is why celebrities doing this is newsworthy.
It might not have helped you, but Ellen Page coming out helped somebody, and that is why you should care.
Photograph: Josh Jensen