Opinion

“Why do people still need to come out in 2019?”

Posted by
Christobel Hastings
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In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any need to come out. But it still remains a rite of passage for many people, even as society moves towards a more liberal way of thinking, says Christobel Hastings.

It happened fairly recently, at a housewarming I threw in the spring. As the evening chatter mellowed, my friend strayed away from the group to nose around my desk. Reading the magazine clippings and scraps of paper cluttering up my pinboard, she spotted a figure that looked familiar.

Jenna Lyons!” she exclaimed. “She’s the one who left her husband for a woman, right?”

I frowned, and paused for a few moments before responding. 

“That’s true, I guess, but she’s also a titan in the fashion industry,” I countered. “Not to mention she reinvented J. Crew and defined American style for two decades!”

At the time, I was stung on behalf of my bespectacled muse, as I considered the way Lyons has been constantly been defined by her bedfellow over the years; a red flag held up against the perceived inconsistency of her relationships. That turned to deeper frustration as I processed how society repeatedly, and deliberately sensationalises LGBTQ relationships.

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There was a time, not so long ago, when if you typed Jenna Lyons’ name into Google, you would come face to face with a murky search history relating to her “torrid lesbian relationship”, after she left her husband in October 2011 to be with Courtney Crangi.

Lyons weathered tabloid gossip with dignity. And at an awards show in November that year, where she won the title of Fashion Original, she publicly thanked “Courtney, who’s shown me new love”.

Eight years on, and sexual fluidity is now throughly part of mainstream culture. Thanks in part to the visibility of high-profile women like Kristen Stewart, Cara Delevingne and Janelle Monáe (a self-styled “queer-ass motherf*cker) refusing to label the terms of their love, positive LGBT representation on screen, and public attitudes shifting decidedly in favour of same-sex acceptance, things feel freer than ever. With the Same-Sex Couples Act of 2013, formal marriage equality has finally been written into the lawbooks too, while in the Houses of Commons, there are currently 45 MPs who define as LGBTQ.

The important love lessons we can learn from LGBT relationships
We can learn important love lessons from LGBTQ+ relationships

But while some say coming out isn’t a big deal anymore, we can’t get complacent. There exists a societal obsession with monitoring same-sex couples, and pressurising them to define their relationships to assuage straight fears. Take Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson, who have been subject to an intense level of media scrutiny since they reportedly starting dating a year ago. Earlier this week, Delevingne made headlines when she “finally” went public about her relationship, even though she told E!News that she dislikes labelling relationships with “official” titles, and insisted that it’s “just a little something”.

Meanwhile, in an increasingly progressive society, the old labels used to classify four sexual identities and promote equal rights – heterosexual, gay, lesbian and bisexual – are still being stubbornly used to encompass a wider range of orientations. The visibility of those who reside in the grey areas of the sexuality spectrum – inhabiting multiple sexual identities, switching between them, and in some cases rejecting all labels completely – have yet to be normalised. Fluidity is a way to give form to those grey areas, embrace the range of romantic and sexual orientations that sit within it, and represent those who sit outside of the binaries. We just need to start recognising it.

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Now that 54% of people aged 18 to 24 identify as something other than 100% heterosexual on the ‘sexuality scale’, it’s clear that a new openness has come to characterise the nature of our attractions. And many friends who previously identified as gay or lesbian when I first met them at university have now adopted “fluid”, “queer” or “pansexual” and are considerably happier for it, while others refute a fixed label altogether.

Social liberalisation does account for changing attitudes towards sexuality, but research also suggests that women are more inclined towards fluidity. US psychologist Lisa Diamond discovered as much in her groundbreaking study following 79 lesbian, bisexual and “unlabelled” women over 10 years. During that time, two-thirds of women changed the identity labels they had claimed at the beginning of the study, and one-third changed labels 2 or more times. But the most common sexual identity was “unlabelled”, with more women adopting the term than moving away from it.

“We have found that one of the fundamental, defining features of female sexual orientation is its fluidity,” she explained in her 2008 book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. “We are now on the brink of a revolutionary new understanding of female sexuality that has profound social and scientific implications.”

The rise of sexual fluidity has proved a positive social change for me, as I didn’t feel the need to “come out” when introducing my girlfriend to friends and family. Granted, I have the support of a loving and tolerant gaggle who didn’t bat an eyelid when I first engineered a get-together – firstly, to my sister at my birthday meal, who was decidedly more interested in cake than my relationship status; soon after to my mum, who plied her with home-cooking. But their exposure to a culture that has begun to accommodate a wider spectrum of attraction and desire has undoubtedly helped them process my relationship – without once ever asking me to pin down how it came about.

Even as society moves towards a more liberal way of thinking, coming out remains a rite of passage for many people, at all stages of their lives. For some, making your sexuality public knowledge is a way of overcoming years of silence and struggle, something that’s celebrated in the US on National Coming Out Day every year. It’s an act of liberation; to live proudly, boldly, openly, and to help create a fairer, freer society for future generations.

For others though, coming out is important to raise the visibility of the LGBT community, especially in environments which have historically been less tolerant. Politicians such as Ruth Davidson, Cat Smith and Justine Greening have normalised the presence of gay and bisexual women in parliament, while sporting stars such as former England’s women’s captain Casey Stoney, US soccer star Megan Rapinoe and Olympic boxer Nicola Adams have set precedents in their respective fields for speaking openly about their sexuality. 

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In an ideal world, of course, there wouldn’t be a need to come out. But for many, the act remains an ongoing process, because we live in a society where being straight and cisgendered is automatically assumed. It’s not by choice that you have to come out to the builder when he asks questions about your boyfriend, come out to your work colleagues at the pub, or come out when you state your next of kin at the doctor’s surgery.

Sexuality is just one facet of someone’s personality; and, nine times out of ten, bringing up the topic is simply a conscious decision not to censor your own life. Ultimately, it matters not how someone identifies, why they love or indeed whom they love. We’re made up of multitudes – let’s leave it at that.

Images: Getty

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.

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