In the early weeks of 1997, I was a high school sophomore just starting to come to terms with my identity as a queer woman. And I wasn’t the only one: In February of that year, comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on The Oprah Winfrey Show, her character on the sitcom Ellen following suit a few months later. It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal DeGeneres’ decision to come out was (though to give you an idea, the queer women’s website After Ellen was named in homage to that historical moment). In the late 1990s, being an out gay celebrity posed a significant career risk. Queer actors (often rightly) feared that coming out would pigeonhole them into a certain kind of career, where roles as heterosexual romantic leads would be deemed “not believable;” it was hard to imagine that America could see a queer person as “relatable.” Two decades later, the landscape looks different: In recent years, a number of celebrities have come out as queer to little or no fanfare. Not only are happily out actors, like Neil Patrick Harris and Zachary Quinto, routinely called upon to play a wide variety of roles, but DeGeneres herself hosts a popular talk show (and has since 2003). And 2016 in particular has seen a rush of celebs coming out as queer. Miley Cyrus, Bella Thorne, Amandla Stenberg, Kristen Stewart, Aubrey Plaza, and Rowan Blanchard have publicly announced their membership on team LGBTQ. It’s a dramatic shift from even a few years ago. When Cynthia Nixon began dating a woman in the mid-aughts, it made major headlines (and let’s not forget the tabloid fodder that was Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson’s torrid romance in 2011). With all this celebrity queerness, it’s easy to wonder whether we’ve finally gotten to the point where we can stop seeing queer celebs as aberrations. Are we at least able to stop treating a celebrity’s sexual orientation as their most notable quality? Well — as with many things related to sexual orientation — it’s a bit complicated. Although there’s no question that we’ve made huge strides in the fight for queer equality, those strides haven’t exactly been equally distributed. Being openly queer has gotten a lot easier for some people, but for others, it’s still seen as a career killer, as evidenced by the way Luke Evans attempted to jump back into the closet the minute his star began to rise. And even when coming out on a national scale is not as hard as it used to be, it’s not exactly a walk in the park. As Howard Bragman, a publicist known for helping a number of celebrities ease their way out of the closet, told me, “It’s not easy for the person. I don’t care if they do it in a low-key way, it doesn’t mean it was a low-key decision for them.”
It’s telling that many of the women who’ve come out this year aren’t publicly in relationships with women.
What factors play into whether or not a celebrity gets to be openly queer? Coming out tends to be a lot easier for women; in particular, for a bisexual woman currently partnered with a man. It’s telling that many of the women who’ve come out this year aren’t publicly in relationships with women; so long as Bella Thorne keeps dating boys, she’s only lightly challenging our ideas of who gets to be a Disney Channel star. As Brian Moylan, a columnist for The Guardian, told me, “People see [female celebrity bisexuality] more as a stance, not as an actual, legitimate sexual orientation." And it doesn’t hurt that straight men are less likely to be threatened by queer women and their relationships than they are to fetishize them — at least, when said women are conventionally attractive and femme. That attitude may explain why Emmy winners Sarah Paulson and Kate McKinnon have been able to bring their partners into the public eye with no real negative impact on their careers. While our still-persistent stereotypes about gay men and masculinity have made it harder for there to be openly gay action stars or romantic leads (Quinto and Harris notwithstanding), fewer men seem to think that a woman who makes out with other women is less believable as a heterosexual love interest — perhaps due to the aforementioned straight male fetishization of queer women’s sexuality. The biggest challenge may be for bisexual men, who — in contrast to their female counterparts — tend to aggressively guard their sexual fluidity. A Flavorwire list of famous male bisexuals relies more on hearsay than actual admissions of queerness (and casts a really wide net, including everyone from Malcolm X to Christopher Hitchens to the filmmaker behind Rebel Without A Cause in the list of celebs). One need only look to Tom Hardy — who copped to sexual fluidity back in 2011 and then took it back, and now pretty much refuses to chat about his sexuality, period — to get a sense of how taboo it is for a famous man to be neither straight nor gay. Despite the many gains that have been made for queer people, bisexual men still tend to be viewed with suspicion: If bi women are perceived as straight women who are taking a stance, bi men tend to be seen as gay men who just can’t admit it — a presumed deceit they’re viciously punished for. So, no, we’re still not quite in the utopia where being queer is a complete non-issue. But we’re still far, far closer than we were in the days of Ellen, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. And if we’re going to continue to make progress for queer visibility, we’re going to need more and more prominent people to come out — and not just femme bi women who lightly challenge our understanding of sexuality while largely hewing to traditional femininity, but those who more aggressively challenge heteronormativity, and help push the boundaries of what’s considered “normal” and “acceptable.” “Coming out is the most important thing any gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person can do,” Moylan told me. “We need everybody to start coming out until it’s a lot more normalized.”