If you’ve ever hidden a big secret, keeping it locked up inside until you finally tell someone about it, you’ll understand how it feels to come out of the closet; the trepidation and uncertainty leading up to this revelation. For most, coming out is a never-ending process as you meet new people, even if telling someone is as casual as mentioning your same-sex partner or past relationships. Now compare coming out for the average person to that of a celebrity, someone whose personal life is scrutinized by millions, who can potentially be hounded by paparazzi, and whose entire career can be affected by their public image. It’s no wonder that LGBT celebs kept their sexuality under wraps for years when it was less socially acceptable to be gay. However, public opinion is changing, with the general consensus being that supporting LGBT people is choosing the right side of history. Popular figures from athletes to YouTubers are acknowledging their sexuality, and young people especially are much more accepting. In fact, the evolution of coming out in Hollywood has changed so much as to almost come full circle, and it seems you no longer have to be “gay” to be gay. This article is intended to explore that evolution for queer women, and what better a place to start than the most well-known lesbian of our time.
Ellen DeGeneres: The Original
Likely the most high-profile coming out story in Hollywood; Ellen DeGeneres made her move in 1997, finally addressing rumors about her sexuality with a Time magazine cover titled, “Yes, I’m gay.” Similar to the way some YouTubers have used their creative platforms to come out, Joey Graceffa in a music video for example, Ellen came out both in real life and as Ellen Morgan on the sitcom “Ellen” that she starred in. The episode, “The Puppy Episode,” garnered 42 million views, made Ellen the first openly gay lead character on primetime television, and won several awards. Unfortunately, it was also met by several sponsors ceasing to advertise, and ABC placing a parental advisory warning on the next season, which would be its last. Ellen’s explanation as to why she came out, despite possible repercussions, is the same reason anybody tells their secrets; "I just didn't want to pretend to be somebody else anymore, so that people would like me."
Today, the Ellen that we all know and love stands as the most visible lesbian in the entertainment industry and has been married to Portia de Rossi since 2008. For her, coming out was a big ordeal, and the fact that she remains known as a gay icon as opposed to simply a talk show host illustrates how her sexuality became a huge part of her public identity.
Pre-2000s: The Secret Life of Gays
While Ellen may have been the first female celebrity to come out so publicly, she is by no means the first lesbian to work in showbiz. Lily Tomlin and Holland Taylor, both 73, were in relationships with women throughout their lives, but chose not to come out to the public until recent years. Tomlin, known for her acting and comedy as well as voicing Ms. Frizzle on “The Magic School Bus,” stated that she was offered a coming out feature on the cover of Time magazine in 1975, but turned it down. Her reasons vary; to save her mother the heart attack, to avoid being known for her sexuality, or because she simply didn’t see the point. “It seems like the same thing with people who call press conferences just to say, "I am gay and I've been gay and I will always be gay." It just struck me as some kind of benign hubris”. Marrying her partner of 42 years on the eve of 2014, Tomlin never seemed to find coming out very important. Holland Taylor, known for playing Evelyn Harper on “Two and a Half Men,” felt similarly, stating, “Most of my relationships have been with women and I don’t like talking about them because I don’t like talking about the politics of it all because I’m not political about it." Now in a public relationship with another actress, Taylor says that she hasn’t come out because she “lives out.”
Middle-Aged and Married: The American Reality
For the celebrities marking the end of the Baby Boomer generation, coming out was a tool used to prove a point while already secure in your sexuality and likely in a long-term relationship. Jodie Foster is one example; in a domestic partnership with Cydney Bernard for nearly 15 years and raising two children before breaking up in 2008. While those in the entertainment industry were aware, Foster kept her private life private, only subtly acknowledging Bernard at a 2007 award ceremony. In 2013, upon receiving the Golden Globe award for Lifetime Achievement, Foster addressed her sexuality by avoiding a “grand coming out speech” and simply advocating for privacy and thanking Bernard. Rosie O’Donnell chose a similar route, coming out in 2002 at a comedy club benefit and continuing to speak in support for gay adoption, as did Wanda Sykes in 2008 who spoke against Proposition 8 and declared her own sexuality (as well as her marriage to Alex Sykes). These women made this decision in order to take stands on political issues, and continued to marry and divorce in the way of the average American.
Bisexuality: It Exists
Each of the women discussed so far have come out as gay, or were known to have relationships almost exclusively with other women. However, quite a few celebs put the B in LGBT with minimal attention from the press. Angelina Jolie came out in 2000, then again in 2003, saying she was interested in both men and women, but this detail comes to light fairly infrequently due to her high-profile marriage to Brad Pitt. Anna Paquin and Evan Rachel Wood faced similar situations, coming out in 2010 and 2011 respectively while in relationships with men. Also in 2010, actress Amber Heard acknowledged her relationship with artist and photographer Tasya van Ree while at a GLAAD red carpet event, stating, “I hate the idea of a label just as much as anyone else but I’m with who I’m with, I love who I love and I’m if not a better actress than I was yesterday and my personal life should have no effect on that. I think that the injustice of people staying in the closet is more than I can bear with a clear conscience and I couldn’t sleep at night if I was a part of that problem, if I was part of the lies.” However, in 2015 Heard married Johnny Depp, a relationship which ended recently with allegations of abuse. The tabloids proceeded to take advantage of the actress’s sexual orientation, releasing vile headlines such as “Bye bi, Amber: Johnny Depp ’driven insane’ over fears his wife had cheated on him with supermodel Cara Delevingne.” Bisexuals are known to face attacks from both the gay and straight communities, as well as being stereotyped as fickle, greedy, or promiscuous. The public reaction to this scandal displayed these biases to their fullest extent. It’s one thing to come out as gay, but these women act as role models for people who swing both ways, proving that you can be in a heterosexual relationship and still identify as bisexual, making you a part of the LGBT community while living a heteronormative lifestyle.
The 2010s: Back to the Beginning?
At this point in 2016, with same-sex marriage legalized and queer representation more common in pop culture, being gay is more accepted than ever. In fact, it’s old news. Celebrities are no longer interested in coming out, they want to keep their options open, to stay away from defining labels. “American Horror Story” star, Sarah Paulson, subscribes to this ideology, stating, “I’m not looking to define myself, and I’m sorry if that is something that is seen as a rejection of or an unwillingness to embrace [my sexuality] in a public way, but it’s simply not. It’s simply what’s true for me, and that’s all I can speak to”. Model turned actress Cara Delevingne feels the same way, announcing that she is in love with her girlfriend, but that she chooses not to use a label for herself. Joining their ranks are Kristen Stewart (from "Twilight") and Raven-Symoné (from "That's so Raven"), both in serious relationships with women and refusing labels. One could infer that this behavior is influenced by the millennial ideology of freedom and self-expression, and of waiting for marriage based on the failures of parental generations. However, actress Ellen Page came out in 2014 in the style of Jodie Foster or Wanda Sykes, giving an emotional speech at HRCF’s Time to Thrive Conference: "I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission." Page’s reasons for coming out are strikingly similar to Amber Heard’s; feeling that by not being completely honest about her sexuality, she was effectively lying or trying to conceal something, which would imply shame. However, the others seem to be offering an alternate solution by being open about their relationships and simply refusing to be labeled, harkening back to the policies of Lily Tomlin or Holland Taylor, living their lives without coming out.
2016: Queer is the New Gay
While young people in Hollywood seem to be defying traditional labels, they’re also creating and popularizing new ones of their own. Last year, Miley Cyrus came out as pansexual, meaning she’s attracted to all people regardless of gender, likely introducing many to the term for the first time. While other celebrities her age choose ambiguity without a label, she labels her ambiguity and owns it. Lily-Rose Depp, the 17-year-old daughter of Johnny Depp, also had something to say last year when she took part in an advertising campaign involving people who “weren’t 100 percent straight.” She has since clarified, "A lot of people took it as me coming out, but that's not what I was trying to do. I was literally doing it just to say that you don't have to label your sexuality." Rowan Blanchard, the 14-year-old star of “Girl Meets World” agrees with this sentiment, even going so far as to call herself “queer” in a tweet and then elaborate: “Being queer to me just means not putting a label on sexuality—just existing.” The youth of Hollywood are definitely more open to new forms of sexuality, but according to this study so are most young people in the U.S., with less than 50 percent of millennials identifying as 100 percent straight. However, one must ask, if everyone is a little gay, does that minimize the community aspect of the gay community?
Critics of this trend may address the struggles faced by past generations in order to achieve the levels of tolerance in today’s society. Certainly, there is irony in young people refusing these hard-earned labels. On the other hand, is this the next step in acceptance for LGBT people? Transitioning from a tight-knit minority either hiding or facing discrimination to a wider and more inclusive community accepted by the general public, to an unremarkable difference like hair color or state of origin? What do you think?