Yesterday Tory Shepherd wrote an article on The Punch about how if, in a purely hypothetical situation, she was gay (which she’s not, don’t get her wrong) she would proudly be out to the world, no ifs or buts about it. So why, she mused, did it take Magda Szubanski so long into her career to come out publicly? She’s a well-respected member of a tolerant industry. It’s no big deal anymore, right?
Well, not exactly.
It’s very easy to announce “I’m straight,” when someone queries your sexuality. It’s a statement that most people will never have to say and an answer that won’t generally lead to further questioning. When you’re heterosexual this aspect of your personal life will likely not define you in the eyes of others from then on.
Saying “I’m gay,” regardless of how confident and secure you are with it, shifts the perceptions people have of you. Your friends and family can love and accept you 100% as the person you are and still manage to put your sexuality above your other personal qualities. Or find a way to relate your interests (or lack of interests) and qualities to your sexual preference. This is something many heterosexuals would no doubt find irrelevant if applied to them and, in some instances, insulting. But everyone has that “gay friend” they refer to in anecdotes; often regardless of whether sexuality is even relevant to the story.
There are a great many people in the LGBTI community who are fine with and embrace their sexuality as a very public and important part of what defines them. This is something that should always be admired. Regardless of their profession or whether or not they have a profile in gossip mags, these are people for the queer and questioning to look up to. But in turn what we then need to remember is that this is a choice strictly for the individual to make in their own time and their own way. Being a role model or openly discussing sexuality is not something gay people are automatically good at or should even find necessary to take on. It should never, ever be put upon them that these are the expectations of broader society.
Being in the public eye amplifies the personal aspects of your life at the best of times whether you like it or not. This is true regardless of your sexuality. Yet there also seems to be an unwritten rule that being openly homosexual gives the media, your industry peers, and the public permission to quite casually define you by this one aspect of your life. How often do you see the name of a famous heterosexual preceded by their sexual preference in a news article?
The fact is discrimination and homophobia is still rampant. Including in the entertainment industry. People often hold Ellen Degeneres up as an example of a successful and respected openly gay woman. In doing that you also need to remember that when she first came out at quite a high point in her initial success she was shunned by her peers, the industry, and the public. It took a lot of hard work, guts, and spirit for her to get to where she is now. Yet still you have people protesting as recently as last month the decision to appoint her as spokesperson for a company they believe doesn’t, or shouldn’t, cater to people of a certain sexual orientation.
Our sexuality is often a very private part of all our lives regardless of where orientation lies. How far we go in discussing these things with friends, family, employers or strangers should be the choice of the individual and the individual only. Disclosing your orientation should not suddenly be an obligation simply because you’re in the public eye and not heterosexual.
Those who choose to come out while in a perceived queer-friendly industry such as film and television are still putting themselves out there into a broader society that can and will vocalise their views against them. To think this couldn’t easily have a negative effect on an individual’s self worth or career is naïve.
Being thought of as gay by other people because they’re a bit of a tomboy, or a man who likes showtunes, does not give a straight person any more of an idea of what they would do if they were actually gay and faced with the decision of when, how and why to come out. Nor does having a whole army of gay friends. The insinuation that they have somehow gained an insight into the “other side” because someone thought they might be gay is quite frankly offensive.
To take someone’s incredibly brave decision to come out publicly as a chance to muse on why it took so long, and accusing those still in the closet of passive self-loathing - when there is nothing at all passive about those feelings - is nothing less than bullying and will not at all reassure others that when it is their time to come out, they’ll be given the love and support so desperately still needed from that “straight friend” of theirs.