Last week, actress and comedian Rebel Wilson announced that she was dating LA leisurewear designer Ramona Agruma.
The announcement was met with joyful responses from the LGBTQIA+ community, with Wilson's younger fans celebrating having another powerful queer woman to aspire to. That was until it became clear that Wilson had been coerced into coming out by the Sydney Morning Herald. In a now-deleted article, gossip columnist Andrew Hornery revealed that he had offered Wilson two days to comment on her relationship with Agruma "before publishing" the news in the Herald. Wilson decided to manage her own narrative and shared the news that she has a girlfriend herself on her personal Instagram, much to the chagrin of Hornery.
So here we are. Rebel Wilson is 'out'. A journey that she had very little agency over and was publicly coerced into making. But as a celebrity, a public figure and a role model, is there an argument to be made that her coming out was important — essential, even? Regardless of the circumstances, does Wilson, like Harry Styles, Lukas Gage and Billie Eilish, owe her audience of young, impressionable, queer fans representation?
Is anyone actually owed representation?
Take Harry Styles. Known for his genderless approach to clothing, it’s fair to say the singer has received plenty of backlash for not being 'out'. Styles has publicly rebuffed questions about his sexuality, stating in an interview with Better Homes & Gardens: "I've been really open with [my sexuality] with my friends, but that's my personal experience; it's mine."
hear me out...... I *want* to like harry styles.....but he sucks the queer community dry by using androgynous/queer-coded aesthetics (and obviously profiting off of it) but without giving us any representation— ry (@cryincilantro98) March 15, 2021
Some have been quick to jump on this as a sign that Styles is queerbaiting, a term used to describe a marketing technique in entertainment whereby creators hint at — but then do not actually depict— same-sex romance or other LGBTQIA+ representation. This term was never designed to apply to speculation about a real person’s sexuality. Aside from this, Styles’ queerbaiting crimes have included supporting trans rights, holding up a Pride flag during a concert and taking a fluid approach to clothing. The suggestion is that gender identity and sexuality are somehow the same and that by wearing a skirt, Styles is essentially identifying himself as queer when, in reality, how we dress has very little to do with our sexual orientation.
Billie Eilish faced similar criticism after sharing a post captioned "I love girls" on her Instagram last year. Eilish, who was 19 years old at the time, faced mass speculation over her sexual orientation. The videos, photos and innocuous comments of a teenage girl were picked apart in an attempt to label her as a queerbaiter. I wonder if we’d scrutinise a teenager who isn't in the public eye and is coming to terms with her identity in the same way. For me, this is the crux of the issue. Queer or not, these celebrities' sexualities are not for us to speculate over. Sexuality can be as private or as public as we want it to be and, just like Styles and Eilish, we don’t owe anyone representation.
That’s not to say that when queer celebrities discuss their identity it doesn’t have an impact.
Back in 2014, the Emmy-winning TV series Modern Family aired its season five finale. Over 10 million viewers tuned in to watch gay couple Mitch and Cam finally tie the knot in the two-hour special, titled "The Wedding". Simultaneously, a Gallup poll announced that support for marriage equality among Americans had reached a new high.
Positive representation in media leading to better acceptance in real life isn't just a theory. A 2020 survey by GLAAD and P&G found that queer representation — in film, TV or with celebrities themselves discussing their sexual orientation — increased queer acceptance by up to 45%. Just like the episode of Modern Family, seeing celebrities actively champion their queerness has a huge impact. You only have to scroll through Twitter to see the impact of Lil Nas X, a queer Black man who is living joyfully. Simply by existing in a public space, his influence on the queer community is far more powerful than any It Gets Better campaign will ever be.
So what about 'out' celebrities? Take JoJo Siwa, the aggressively joyful YouTuber and dancer who came out as queer last year. In an exhilarating moment of community, Siwa was surrounded by positive comments as she documented discovering her identity. She has gone on to engage in plenty of conversations about her partner and sexuality, creating the sort of representation that 1990s babies only dreamed of. She’s young, funny and, most importantly, proud to be queer. The impact of Siwa's contribution to conversations surrounding queer identity on her legions of young fans cannot be underestimated.
Why is Siwa’s experience so different from that of Wilson, another blonde, funny and well-liked celebrity? If we can see the hugely positive impact of queer representation, why shouldn’t celebrities be out? Why shouldn’t Harry Styles be grilled in every interview about his identity? Why shouldn’t Rebel Wilson be forced into coming out?
We forget that almost every queer person has wrestled with the fear of being outed. I can distinctly recall my own experience after running into someone from my school at a queer support group. The nausea and unease at knowing that before I had completely figured out my identity, it could be shared with my peers to speculate over. The fear of being almost certain of who you are and having it ripped away plagues young people coming to terms with their sexuality and gender identity.
Unlike Modern Family’s wedding episode, I doubt we’ll see an uptick in queer acceptance following Wilson’s outing. It could have been different if the timeline had been hers to choose and manage, if she had been given the chance to share her new relationship in a way that felt completely within her control.
So do celebrities owe us representation? No. But our media does. Media organisations owe queer people agency over their journeys towards coming out and, equally, if they choose not to. They owe celebrities interviews that don’t revolve around their perceived queerness when they’ve set a clear boundary.
Representation is essential for young, queer people but outing someone — whether directly, as in Wilson's case, or by bringing it into question during almost every single interview, as with Styles — will only ever represent fear and shame.