After a newspaper attempted to ‘out’ Rebel Wilson’s relationship, one queer writer shares the struggles of having to come out over and over.
Last Sunday, I had just filed a piece about having my first queer relationship at the age of 35 when my girlfriend showed me Rebel Wilson’s Instagram post revealing her relationship with fashion designer Ramona Agruma. The now-famous image was captioned: “I thought I was searching for a Disney Prince… but maybe what I really needed all this time was a Disney Princess #LoveIsLove“. Since my article was due to publish the next day, we joked that Rebel had scooped me.
On the contrary, it actually helped quell the anxiety I was feeling about sharing such a personal story for the first time. If Rebel was brave enough to casually “come out”, surely I was making the right decision too. But as we all discovered, the decision wasn’t actually Rebel’s at all. The Sydney Morning Herald had intended to publish a story about her relationship and had backed her into a corner. Her choices: out herself or be outed. My joke about being scooped seemed suddenly heavier. As I read the growing backlash – the celebrities wading in, the many ‘how in 2022?’ comments – the feeling in the pit in my stomach intensified. Maybe I had misread the room. Maybe I was mad to publicise what so many people are still trying to hide. What had initially felt like a beautiful, shared experience suddenly felt… sad.
See, I married the first person I fell in love with. We met as teenagers and separated in 2017, shortly after having our son. At 32, when I was ready to date again, I knew I was open to meeting both men and women. I never really had to come out to my closest friends, I simply sent them pictures of men and women I had matched with.
My friendship group contains many wonderful queer and queer-allied people, so they just allowed me to not make a big deal about it. The first woman I dated was also bisexual and new to the queer community, and we talked for hours about the challenges of coming out later in life. While I hadn’t yet told my family, I wasn’t worried about how they would react, but for her, the repercussions felt huge. Being outed would have been catastrophic. I met my now-girlfriend a year later, and one of the many things that I fell in love with was her conviction in who she was and the hurdles she had overcome to live the life she had chosen. When it came to telling people about our relationship, her struggles that had come long before meeting me gave me strength.
The truth is, neither Rebel’s Instagram post nor my essay was our first coming out. As any member of the queer community knows, there is no one finite coming out. The coming out has a beginning (maybe it’s telling your best friend or your mum) but it has no end. Those in queer partnerships or living a queer lifestyle will spend the rest of their lives coming out over and over again. Society’s assumption of straightness, the majority’s heteronormative bias, means that you will spend countless social interactions confirming that you don’t fit their preconceived ideal. Rebel will, no doubt, have already had to come out to multiple friends, family members and acquaintances.
Since being in a same-sex couple, I have somehow got used to coming out multiple times a week to almost everyone I speak to. The school mum who asks what I’m doing at the weekend; a colleague who wants to know why certain travel destinations are on my no-go list; the stranger I met at a work event who, as soon as I utter the word ‘girlfriend’, has a lot of completely inappropriate and invasive questions. There is a weight attached to each of these interactions, even more so if you’re dealing with your own internal bias or previous trauma. You are guessing whether they carry a bias that will change their perspective of you and whether they will accept you for who you are.
“Some people have simple, beautiful stories of acceptance around coming out, first to themselves and then to others,” says psychodynamic therapist Alison Greenaway. “But for most, the journey is difficult, complex and traumatic. The shame-based belief in the need to conceal one’s true self can cause profound mental, physical and emotional health difficulties. Coming out to oneself is a difficult, brave and painful process of inner recognition. Coming out to others is even braver; there is a real possibility that this part of you will be met with rejection, shame, ridicule, disgust, discrimination or violence.”
She confirms this is not a one-time battle. “Queer people fight it again and again, deciding daily whether to correct a misgendering, lie overtly or by omission, hold or drop a partner’s hand when approaching a crowd. It is a daily risk assessment around ‘when’ to reveal themselves and how to deal with a negative or threatening response.” Indeed, it is a process that never ends and every time they do it, queer people face the same risks of rejection, discrimination or violence for sharing that part of who they are. And it’s this constant stress, Greenaway says, that has a “profound impact on the nervous system, which in turn can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health”.
When I asked my queer friends how often they felt that they had to come out, the unanimous response was ‘a lot’. One replied: “Pretty much every time I meet someone new; it can be daily. I also find you’re outed by people who know your sexuality to strangers, too. [For example: ‘I’m going with my mate Jessica, who’s gay’.] It’s weird.” It’s also intrusive and exhausting; knowing people are labelling and defining you by their standards, not yours. Knowing they are othering you behind your back.
As a woman, I am also all too familiar with the late-life lesbian tropes. The couldn’t-hold-down-a-man slurs, the political-lesbian-man-hating-feminist accusations. The assumption that you’ve lived life to this point in the closet, that you were living a lie. “It can often feel there is more at stake regarding employment, marital relationships and children,” says Greenaway, who provides trauma counselling to LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. “It can therefore be harder to explain to people who have only known you as straight (‘Will people embrace me for being authentic now? Or mistrust me for being inauthentic for so long?’)” Biphobia plays into these worries, too, as some people cannot grasp the idea of gender non-specific or fluid sexuality, so they simply refuse to accept it.
She’s right. One of my friends says she gets the constant “Oh, you’re back there again” jibes because she’s with a female partner now. “Uh, no, I’ve always been queer,” she has to reply. And that’s the crux of the frustration: some people think you are one or the other, that you’re ‘changing your mind’. It’s exasperating. My sexuality is not defined by the gender or sex of my partner. It is defined by my ability to fall in love with a partner outside of those confines. Bisexuality is expansive and inclusive, not fickle and unreliable. Coming out over and over holds more stress when you carry the weight of these assumptions and stereotypes. You are always trying to read a room, guess a judgment or make space for people’s prejudices. You are trying to fit a box that wasn’t designed for you.
This adjustment is even more disorientating – difficult, even - if you are also navigating a more complicated family dynamic or cultural norms. “Before I met my partner, I’d been in a five-year relationship with a man,” says Moesha Owusu-Donkor, 25. “When I realised I was falling for my partner [a woman], it was a huge shock and almost an identity crisis. But I went with it because it just felt right. Then when you’re dealing with cultural difficulties, I almost didn’t expect the reaction that I received. In African cultures, it is just not the norm. This is a generalisation, but it’s common that what other people think matters. [Being queer] is not widely accepted, so your family aren’t accepting because they fear it won’t be accepted by others. There’s an added layer, with the people you love and care about not being happy about it.”
Moesha doesn’t see why she, or anyone else, should be forced to come out, and I couldn’t agree more. Because you “force” someone to come out every time you ask them to validate their sexuality or relationship status and every time you misgender their partner or question them about their intentions with a romantic connection. Your choice, like Rebel’s, is to come out or lie, either overtly or by omission. “The most empowering thing is just to live my life,” says Moesha. “And if my partner is a woman, it’s just ‘here’s my partner’. If people are shocked, that’s their fault. I just don’t see the need to make a big deal about coming out. Coming out, for me, is about being happy with myself and my partner and living my life freely and openly, whoever my partner is.”
And that’s what it comes down to: queer people just wanting to live their lives. Some people think that in 2022 LGBTQ+ rights have come a long way, and they have, but there is a very long way to go. Enough is enough. Queer people must be allowed to live and love. The collective feeling from the LGBTQ+ community at the attempted outing of Rebel is one of sadness, disappointment, and anger, yes, but there is hope, too. Celebrities including Whoopi Goldberg, Matt Lucus and Ronan Keating jumped to the defence of Rebel. Sydney Morning Herald reporter Andrew Hornery has also publicly apologised for his actions and published a column acknowledging his mistakes. The community will not be silenced and is celebrating 50 years of Pride in style.
There is also a quiet determination, so beautifully voiced by Moesha, to self-empower. Rebel’s defenders are loud, and they are many. They are the sign of the times I look to, not the attempted public outing; shocking because it is wrong, yes, but also because it feels so archaic. I’m so happy that Rebel found her Disney Princess. I feel so lucky to have found mine. I hope that others can find hope in this situation, despite how it played out, because Rebel chose Pride in her love when the alternative was shame.
My message to anyone navigating this complicated, hurdle-filled journey is this: if coming out feels impossible, please know that when you’re ready to take the first step (of a coming out path that will quickly become very well-trodden), however old you are, that community of Rebel’s defenders – the queer and the queer allies, the rainbow army – will be right here beside you. And maybe one day, we won’t need to come out (once, twice or every darn day) at all.
Main image via Getty, photographs courtesy of Rebecca Cox.