on being public about identity without “coming out”
[author’s note: I’m using ‘gay’ as an umbrella term in this essay instead of saying ‘lesbian/bi’ or ‘queer’, simply because I have to use it a lot, it flows easier in writing, AND because I personally don’t reclaim queer. additionally this post will not include any tabloid photos or speculation threads from tumblr or message boards.]
In November 1999, an episode of Ally McBeal included a sexual experimental scene involving Ally (Calista Flockhart) and Ling Woo (Lucy Liu). This scene had one of the first full perspective kisses between two women on primetime television — you could see both of their profiles clearly as they kissed — and was considered so racy it was banned in Singapore. This was the third time the show had shown Ally kissing women, the first time it wasn’t done for the attention of men, and in an episode where both characters talk about their possible sexualities. At the end of the episode they’re decidedly straight. An interview later has the two actresses talk about enjoying said kiss.
In October 2003, Lucy Liu did an interview with Jane magazine. It’s full of gems, revealing that her role in Kill Bill was written specifically for her, that her martial arts training increased her aggression, and that in college she put up photos of naked women in her home.
The statement on the cover of the magazine came from this quote: “I think people sometimes get the wrong impression when they’re like, ‘Oh, well, so-and-so was straight and then she was gay, and now she’s straight again,’ you know? But it’s like, how many times do I have to kiss a woman before I’m gay? Everybody wants to label people. Sometimes you just fall in love with somebody, and you’re really not thinking about what gender or whatever they happen to be. I think that if I happen to fall in love with a woman, everyone’s going to make a big deal out of it. But if I happen to fall in love with a man, nobody cares.”
At face value, her comments in 1999 portray her as cautiously bi, only considering being with women when things with men didn’t work out. But by 2003, she was telling a different story — not just that everyone was a little bit bisexual, but that her loving kissing women shouldn’t be a matter of debate.
A popular thing to do lately is accuse celebrities of queerbaiting their fans in their music, their outfits, and their friendships. Queerbaiting is a term to describe a specific type of homophobia in media — shows and movies that tease the potential for gay relationships to increase viewership while having no intention on the creator’s part to make said characters gay. It’s not when two characters who aren’t straight don’t get together. It’s not when the narrative codes characters as gay. And it absolutely is not when people exist without coming out.
After her role as Carol Danvers in the Marvel movie Captain Marvel, Brie Larson jumped on the radar of many gay women. Her support of people who ship Maria/Carol and Carol/Valkyrie is exhibited both interacting with fan art and interacting with Tessa Thompson. Tessa is openly bi and very supportive of her character dating Carol. Even ignoring the relationships Carol has with other women in the comics, the short hair she shows up with in Endgame that reflects newer comics of her and having the love story archetype in Captain Marvel be between her and Maria resulted in fans head-canoning her as gay.
Soon after the release of Captain Marvel, the movie Unicorn Store came out. It’s the directorial debut of Brie Larson and she’s one of the leads. It involves a lot of rainbow imagery, unicorns, and Samuel L. Jackson in a pink suit. The movie itself got mixed reviews, but the overwhelming mix of colors and presence of rainbow was something that felt not just feminine, but also gay inspired. And since her love interest was male, some people might argue that it was a straight movie, but that’s erasing a huge section of people in the community. It’s unfair to assume that because that relationship exists people who read gayness into it were led astray. Nothing about the movie or the promotion of the movie existed as a bait.
One reason that gay women connect to Brie is because of how she presents herself. Stereotypes, of course, flatten the diversity of a group. But it’s one thing if the stereotype is used on a person outside of the group in question. It’s another if the people commenting are people who see those traits in themselves and their friends.
Brie Larson being unable to sit correctly in chairs, or having shorter hair, or killing it in a suit isn’t her trying to fit into a mold to make gay fans like her. In 2017, in fact, she responded to a tweet that Trump had tweeted over six months earlier, disagreeing with his take on the LGBT+ community. She’s constantly calling Tessa Thompson her dream girl. There are a large variety of skits on YouTube that allude to trying to figure out if another woman has real gay vibes and one of my favorites points out in the description that it plays with cliches.
The singer and actor Janelle Monáe came out as bi/pan in 2018 on the tails of the release of an arguably bi anthem ‘Make Me Feel’ and an interviewer inaccurately calling her a lesbian. The emotion picture Dirty Computer tells the story of an android named Jane being reprogrammed for deviating against the norm. All her memories of being on the run and in love with Zen (Tessa Thompson) and Ché (Jayson Aaron) are shown through the short film as they’re slowly deleted by the authoritarian government. It includes the flirtatious and sexy song ‘PYNK’ that features Tessa literally peeking her head out of Janelle’s vagina.
‘PYNK’, ‘Make Me Feel’, and ‘Django Jane’ had all been released as singles before Janelle came out. The aesthetics and lyrics of all three songs reflect her sexuality, and there were rumors of a romance between her and Thompson (that neither of them confirmed nor denied), but that wasn’t seen as any definite proof of her being gay.
The opening song of Janelle Monáe’s 2013 album Electric Lady is ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, an acronym that stands for queer, untouchables, emigrants, excommunicated, and Negroid. It includes the lines “Hey brother can you save my soul from the devil? / Say is it weird to like the way she wear her tights? / And is it rude to wear my shades? / Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? (Maybe) because I love watching Mary?” Another song that alludes to gayness on this album is Sally Ride, named after the lesbian astronaut and including the lyrics “Wake up Mary / Have you heard the news? / You got to wake up Mary / You got the right to choose.” The music video for ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ features an audience of women in love with her character Cindy as Cindy takes delight in it. Those of us who aren’t cishet who’d been following Janelle Monáe since Electric Lady, or further back since The ArchAndroid, recognized that she wasn’t straight. In ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ she makes the statement “categorize me, I defy every label”. That doesn’t mean that her identities (and the ones she invokes by definition with having the song being called QUEEN) didn’t exist. The Afro-futurism in her music is connected to identity by default — and so was the concept of Mary — she just didn’t want to use labels.
Shipping real people unprompted is absolutely a weird thing to do. Real person fiction is a problem because people aren’t fictional characters to prop up as pairings in stories. Props to celebrities who are comfortable with it happening, but not all celebs are nor do they have to be.
Two celebrities recognizing people watching their relationship and giving said relationship a name is a whole different ballpark. Relationship portmanteaux date back to ‘Bennifer’ and ‘Brangelina’, two iconic power couples. Within fan spaces one relationship that was fun to watch as it progressed was Katie Cassidy-Rodgers and Emily Bett Rickards aka ‘Kamily’. Even though there weren’t any official coming out statements from either of them, there also was no point where they hid their love for each other (including a drunken periscope where Katie says that Emily’s her girlfriend). Even after they broke up, once things settled down they went right back to using the name for celebrating them as a pair.
An unexpected twist this year, at least in my circles, was Janelle Monáe and Lupita Nyong’o appearing to be something more than friends. They’re aware of this and instead of shutting it all down, they’ve encouraged it, coining the portmanteau ‘Lunelle’. And since Janelle is out, this implies things about Lupita, even if she hasn’t come out or doesn’t officially come out. She’s definitely having a good time with whatever’s going on and the attention they’re getting. But even if they aren’t dating each other, Janelle’s still bi/pan. Her relationships with women aren’t equivalent to a straight woman playing up a friendship with another woman and yelling “no homo” in the process.
In her first magazine interview since 2016, Taylor Swift graced the cover of Entertainment Weekly with pink in her hair and a jean jacket covered in pins. A feature in this spread explained what each of the pins meant. One of the only ones she didn’t explain was the pride heart she was wearing.
As time has progressed, Taylor’s become less and less subtle about how she wants the world to see her. It’s not just her rainbow outfits or the explosion of color in her music video for ‘ME!’. It’s not just the rainbow motif all over her social media accounts. It’s not just her changing pronouns in performances or being invited to perform at Stonewall Inn. It’s also her donating money to an LGBT+ organization in Tennessee, her finally getting ‘political’ in support of a candidate who supported LGBT+ rights, and her vocally supporting the Equality Act, right down to writing a letter to her senator.
Her music video for ‘You Need to Calm Down’ is full of celebrity guests, which is not something that she hasn’t done in the past. What’s notable about this video is how the guests span the LGBT+ community. From Hayley Kiyoko and Ellen DeGeneres, to Todrick Hall and the Fab Five, to Laverne Cox in her magnificent glory, Taylor made sure the rainbow, pride flag themed set was full of people who represented the flag. Her hair was dyed the color of the bi flag. She had Billy Porter, an actor who has recently been very vocal about straight people taking gay roles, show up in a dress in time with the lyric “like can you just not step on his gown”. The lyric video revealed that the line “Why are you mad / When you could be glaad?” was referencing the LGBT+ rights organization GLAAD.
Everything about this music video is gay. It’s a celebration of what the LGBT+ community is and how we dress, how we love, how we celebrate. It’s loud, it’s bright, it’s not pretending to be something that it’s not. Taylor Swift deliberately includes herself with other gay & trans individuals instead of being an outsider. That’s not something a lot of straight performers who write LGBT+ ‘anthems’ focus on doing.
Strangers, celebrity or not, should be taken at face value. It shouldn’t be difficult to recognize the difference between an authentic expression of self and a ploy for self-gain. Of course, the truth behind a lie always reveals itself eventually, and if nothing else Taylor Swift has already experienced that fallout before.
The term “gal pals” became a joke in gay circles due to an unfortunate tabloid article about Kristen Stewart from 2015. A description on one of the very clearly gay photos read “Inseparable! Kristen Stewart enjoyed the second weekend of the Coachella Music Festival with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile”. Relationships between women are minimized as simply friendship or as experimentation. We’re not supposed to have intense attraction to other women — and any suggestion that the attraction could exist in a person, celebrity or not, is against the norm. The idea of a person being considered straight until proven otherwise is harmful because it puts straightness as normal and any other identity as deviation. People exist as non-straight without using labels.
And people exist as lesbian or bi or pan or queer without going through the process of coming out time after time after time.
Yes, there are people who hide any indication that they could be anything other than straight for an extensive variety of reasons. Yes, there are people who use the LGBT+ community as an aesthetic.
But there are people who simply live their lives without making coming out statements. This includes celebrities. If we can understand that straight until proven otherwise is harmful, doesn’t that imply that gay people exist without having to be proven as such? If we can understand that not everyone uses labels or wants to tell people their labels, does recognizing things that they’ve said and things they’ve done that aren’t stereotypical behaviors or cliché assumptions mean that an identity is being assigned to them?
Every single example I’ve brought up in this essay was based on comments and actions that the women made on their own. It’s not about rumors or digging for dirt. It’s all easily available information. Being in a community often results in connecting to people like yourself. It means recognizing the traits in them that you see within other people in your community. It’s not giving someone a medical diagnosis — it’s understanding that how we deal with our sexuality differs from person to person and that there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that someone else is like you.
Recognizing that it’s okay to be LGBT+ without having to say something is a good thing.
Which brings us back to the topic used to begin this essay — is Lucy Liu gay?
Because she keeps a pretty private life (I honestly consider myself pretty lucky every time we get to see a picture of Rockwell), it’s unlikely she’ll ever officially come out again with a specific label. But she continues to paint sexual images of naked women. She proudly has them on display on her studio. She exists unapologetically as a single mother. And that’s what all of us in the LGBT+ community want to do — simply exist in this world.
She’s doing a damn good job of it.