Queer people are frequently forced to revisit the idea of what queerness is. And it’s happening more and more lately, especially when it comes to deciphering who or what is allowed to identify as queer.
Identity gatekeeping is problematic in and of itself, but so is the idea, posed every so often, that "everyone is queer." Because, as Jenna Wortham posed in a 2016 New York Times piece on that very subject, "When everyone can be queer, is anyone?"
The question doesn't necessarily have a defined answer because, as Wortham and the writers of subsequent pieces on the topic have pointed out, queerness is difficult to define by its very nature. But with a growing cultural acceptance of gays and lesbians has come a growing acceptance of gender and sexual fluidity. The commodification of LGBTQ public acceptance also means it's an easier topic to broach in interviews with celebrities, sometimes in earnest, others in an attempt to solicit headlines with juicy tidbits about their personal lives.
With a growing cultural acceptance of gays and lesbians has come a growing acceptance of gender and sexual fluidity.
Case in point: A tiny piece of a recent Bustle interview with Rosario Dawson turned into several headlines about her “coming out” as part of the LGBTQ community, despite Dawson's clear discomfort with speaking as such. The interviewer writes that Dawson halts their conversation "with a wide-eyed look of confusion" when she's asked about her coming out in a 2018 Instagram post celebrating Pride.
“People kept saying that I [came out]... I didn’t do that,” Dawson said. “I mean, it’s not inaccurate, but I never did come out. I mean, I guess I am now. … I’ve never had a relationship in that space, so it’s never felt like an authentic calling to me.”
That exact comment spawned headlines like "Rosario Dawson officially comes out as part of the LGBTQ community" (New York Post) and "Rosario Dawson Confirms She’s Bisexual" (CBS), yet Dawson's reps clarified to the Daily Beast that she was coming out as an ally, not as a member of the community. Still, the way she phrased it — and what coming out has come to mean more generally — unsurprisingly led to plenty of confusion. Because there is a distinct difference in being an ally and being part of the LGBTQ community, in coming out in support of us, and in being one of us. The latter are significantly less privilege, especially when you factor in intersections of race, class and abilities.
Back in August, Julianne Hough, married to a man, told Women's Health that she did not identify as straight and had recently came out to her husband as such. She later told US Weekly she doesn't label her sexuality: "The energy behind it is that, love is love. And that’s what I believe. That’s it. Like, it’s actually less complicated than everybody’s making it. It’s just, love is love."
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In 2010, Cameron Diaz said she's been attracted to women and later told Andy Cohen (who frequently inquires if his "Watch What Happens Live" guests have "dipped into the lady pond") that she's been intimate with at least one woman in her lifetime. Diaz later clarified that she was not saying she was bisexual, but that she simply appreciated women's bodies. (Read: Not queer.)
Amber Tamblyn once told me during an interview that she identified as queer despite being "straight": “That means that I believe in queer lifestyle," she told me at a Television Critics Association event. "I engage in queer lifestyle. I am part of the queer community. For the most part I’m straight, but I’m not gay and I don’t think I’m bi either. I’m queer and that just means that I am a part of the community."
It's not just women — Lucas Hedges told Vulture in 2018 that while he's not totally straight, he also doesn't consider himself gay or bisexual, instead, existing "on a spectrum." Then there's those like Lindsay Lohan, who say that their public same-sex relationship (like hers with Samantha Ronson) was an anomaly, telling Wendy Williams in 2018 that she does not identify as sexually fluid and that she exclusively dates men.
And that's the thing about sexuality — it is a spectrum, which means if you consider the Kinsey scale, anyone who doesn't identify as a strict zero ("absolutely heterosexual") could see themselves as queer. While that does not require any specific kind of action or a relationship (plenty of asexual, aromantic or otherwise single queer people exist), for some queer people, a question on how such a wide expanse of queerness can affect queerness itself.
There is a difference in an individual's openness to queer love or sex as an advocate for the community and those of us who live and embody queerness every single day.
But there is a distinct difference in an individual's openness to queer love or sex as an advocate for the community and those of us who live and embody queerness every single day. Because for so many queer people — myself included — our queerness is such a huge part of our identities and the way we move through the world that it can feel like those on the lower ends of the Kinsey scale are cheapening or altering the meaning of something that is inherent and intrinsic to our humanity. We are quick to call out or call in members of our own community in their missteps, too — because representations of who and what we are have been so skewed and damaging that our ownership is not just critical, but finally palpable.
We take control of our image and our good name because even the idea of "queer" itself is a reclamation of something used against us. All of that work cannot be undone, but there's still more to do, which is why our frustrations in how we are seen and celebrated can turn into personal attacks because, as the saying goes, the personal is personal.
Consider the comings out of public figures like Kevin Spacey or Jameela Jamil, who both made announcements on Twitter after scandals. Spacey, who has been closeted throughout his entire career, came out as gay after he was accused of sexual misconduct, conflating homosexuality with his predatory behavior in very poor taste. More recently, Jamil came out as queer after being named a judge on an upcoming HBO Max show about voguing.
Jamil's tweet attempted both to explain and deflect from the point many people were making about the co-opting of Black and Latinx LGBTQ culture, a community that has been frustrated by outsiders before — participants in the award-winning documentary "Paris Is Burning" accused filmmaker Jennie Livingston, a white lesbian, of unfair compensation and voyeuristic cultural appropriation.
Spacey’s alleged crimes are clearly on a different plane than Jamil’s cultural ones, but both stars tried to use their queerness as protective shields for wrongdoing, as did Ellen DeGeneres in her forgiveness of Kevin Hart and friendship with former President George W. Bush. And I’d be remiss not to add that Dawson herself (along with other family members) has been accused of assaulting a trans man who used to work for her.
Pete Buttigieg, our first openly gay presidential candidate, has used his own queerness to detract from issues with other minority communities. In November, Black voters were particularly offended by Buttigieg's equating his being gay with the experience of being black, as well as his saying Black voters wouldn't vote for him out of their inherent generational homophobia.
Queerness and queer people are not infallible. In fact, queer theorist Jack Halberstam would argue that there's a very specific queer art to failure, and we, as queer people, are nailing it. Who wouldn't want to take part?
Dawson was appropriately wary of speaking about how she identifies with LGBTQ people based on something she felt was inauthentic. While her wording in the moment was phrased as such "coming out," it was the media who took her words and ran with the exact notion she was looking to move away from.
In the past, when there were so few openly queer and trans public figures, every inkling of non-heteronormativity was celebratory. Now, in 2020, it's time to think critically about how we can both celebrate an expansive definition of queerness while still acknowledging that queerness is becoming homogenized in post-marriage-equality America.
Queerness may be more generally accepted and accessible, but that shouldn't change how those of us who live queer come to see queerness as a theory, as a practice, as a way of being. Everyone might be queer, but only a certain percentage of us experience queerness as such — and that's something no one can question or, perhaps, accurately define. How's that for fluid?