cw: homophobia, sexual assault.
The first accusation of sexual assault against Kevin Spacey surfaced on October 29, 2017 by actor Anthony Rapp. In a Buzzfeed article written by Adam Bary, it was reported that in 1986, 26-year-old Spacey sexually forced himself upon Rapp, who was 14 at the time. On the same night that the article surfaced, Spacey came forward to apologize through an official statement, in which he also came out as gay. “I have loved and had romantic encounters with men throughout my life, and I choose now to live as a gay man. I want to deal with this honestly and openly and that starts with examining my own behavior,” he said in the brief apology published on his Twitter account.
The second part of Spacey’s comment has been met with justified backlash from the gay community. Many have spoken out about fears that Spacey's coming out will be weaponized by anti-LGBTQ groups to correlate pedophilia with queerness. Still, this mediatized coming out gesture can also be read as Spacey’s desperate and misguided attempt to redeem himself—to be understood more as a queer man than a pedophile, maybe hoping that the media will celebrate his “bravery” and hence prevent the (rightful) ostracism that followed the now 15 accusations posed against him. This act of individual redemption ultimately comes at the expense of the whole LGBTQ community. While Spacey’s capitalization on coming out culture is a despicable act of violence towards the experiences of sexual assault survivors, his expectation to be protected by the congratulatory reactions of the media is not fully unfounded.
In many communities, the self-disclosure of one’s sexual identity has become a crucial rite of passage to be recognized and validated in one’s queer identity. More than the politicized act of coming out in the Stonewall era, in many liberal communities across the United States, the act of coming out provides a sort of social capital that resonates with notions of empowerment and bravery, while also allowing queers to enter mainstream gay subculture. On the other hand, lack of disclosure is often read as a consequence of internalized homophobia and “unjustified” anxiety around the implications of living an openly queer life.
The scrutiny over Tyler the Creator’s sexual identity is an example of pop culture’s fixation with the declaration and categorization of queer identities. With the release of “Flower Boy,” the rapper’s latest album, previous questions regarding Tyler’s same-sex attraction resurfaced. Publications such as the Independent, Vox, Vice, and the Guardian, to name a few, wrote extensive pieces on every clue Tyler has ever dropped regarding his sexual preferences; from his misleading comments on being “gay as fuck” in a Rolling Stone interview back in 2015, to his proclaimed love for young Leonardo Dicaprio.
As a public figure largely scrutinized for his political incorrectness (his use of homophobic slurs got him banned from the UK in 2015), the discussion surrounding Tyler’s sexual identity often portrays him as a closeted man hurting from anger and internalized homophobia. “Is this a young man’s earnest struggle to come to terms with his sexuality in a public forum, awkwardly using humor as a defense mechanism to protect himself from a potentially unforgiving rap community?” asked Benjamin Lee, East Coast Arts Editor for the Gaurdian, in his column. In the very same piece, Lee also refers to the contradictions of “being gay and a hip-hop fan,” in a gesture that aims—through policing and trying to make sense of Tyler’s inconsistencies—to make sense of his own contradictions. Ultimately, forcing labels that the rapper has openly rejected does not seem to be serving a higher purpose of constructing visibility. Rather, it has become an attempt to make him more legible and palpable to mass (particularly white) audiences.
The neoliberal transition of the 1970s and 1980s proposes, as put by anthropologist David Harvey, “that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” Hence neoliberalism, while an economic model, has mapped itself into the practices and social norms of the US and other societies. Neoliberal governments promote a model of ‘market citizen,’ allowing space for certain kinds of identity claims that are compatible with the economic project, while simultaneously silencing political perspectives and movements that challenge free-market premises. Such a model has turned queer subjects from figures of death into notions of life and productivity—particularly after the legalization of same-sex marriage—but continues to be one that is not available to every queer member of society. The assimilation of queer subjects creates a model of ‘homonormativity’ that hinges on the individual’s “access to the institutions of domestic privacy, the ‘free’ market, and patriotism.” Instead of the early claims for queer ‘equality’ which defined it as freedom to be different, current neoliberal society has only gone so far as to allow equality as “sameness with normativity.”
The integration of a ‘normal gay subject’ into American neoliberal politics has come to shape the shallow and celebratory ideas that surround coming out as the ultimate promise to queer liberation based on individual freedom rather than communal uplift.
For many, being ‘out’ is an empty promise. The fundamental nature that mass media has given to coming out excludes a large part of the queer community, and speaks to the ways in which a specific model of queerness has become part of the neoliberal project of US empire. Coming out promises liberation and an opening to live a free, depoliticized life, but often proves to be the opposite. In order to come out, one must have someone to come out to, and identifications of class, race, or migration status can deprive certain groups within the queer community to access the same narrative of liberation that mass media promises and celebrates.
There are plenty of examples of the fetishization and consumerism surrounding coming out. In 2014, actress Ellen Page came out to the public in a speech at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation Conference. As she declared during the speech, she felt the “personal and social responsibility” to do so. Later on, she discussed the experience with another queer icon, Ellen Degeneres. In the interview that aired on April 30 of the same year, both women discussed feelings of guilt associated with the closet and how, in Degeneres's words, “you are releasing shame” by openly disclosing your sexual identity to the public. While an empowering gesture for some, this sort of discourse carries the implication that those who choose to remain “in the closet” do so out of shame. The emancipatory coming out model is a racialized, class, and documentation-based idea that incorporates a very specific queer model that fails to account for the barriers that other marginalized identities pose to the trendy image of creating an open forum of one’s sexual preference.
Not only does Page’s experience reflect the normalized audience’s enthusiasm for commodified narratives about coming out in US culture, but it also reveals the dichotomies that it entails, providing a certain kind of social capital to folks holding privileged identities within the queer community. Following her speech and emergence as an LGBTQ rights activist, Page scored the development and production of Viceland show, Gaycation. The series follows Ellen Page and friend Ian Daniel (who also identifies as queer), as they travel to several destinations to explore LGBTQ living. While Gaycation is meant to be a travel show, the show spends much of its screen time focusing on the struggles and suffering of queer people in foreign destinations. The show is based upon the rising LGBTQ imperialist rhetoric that divides the world into (first-world) LGBTQ-friendly countries, and (third-world) homophobic ones, based on a barometer of the same hurtful ritualization of coming out, as well as the institutionalization of same-sex marriage and other inclusive policies. This further erases the nuances previously discussed, and the ways in which certain queer communities continue to be excluded within this neoliberal LGBTQ model.
The show structurally operates on the notion of coming out as a pivotal moment of queer life, which Ellen Page has stood by in the past. Not only is there a fixation with exploiting queer narratives of oppression throughout the show—on a previous episode, they actually broadcast the coming out of a young Japanese queer man to his mother. Page discusses her own experience with leaving ‘the closet,’ mentioning how loving someone openly was far more important to her than “being in movies” or “having someone dislike [her].” “Coming out was moving past the shame and discomfort,” she says almost in tears. The episode goes on to center Page’s inspiring speech as the driving force of the revelation that will follow.
This is not to deny the benefits and empowering effect that coming out could have, but it ignores the privilege that frames narratives like this. As a famous actress, enjoying financial independence and living in a country that does not criminalize her on the basis of her sexual identity, Ellen Page benefits from a platform that many queer youth, particularly throughout the Third World, do not enjoy. Both the export of such a narrative into a foreign context, and its vainglory on a national platform, is unfair to those who cannot relate to other aspects of the actress’s identity.
‘Coming out’ and other LGBTQ-related terms are culturally specific concepts that not every community adheres to, and the imposition of US-based LGBTQ categories can be sometimes subtle for a national audience. For an episode of Gaycation’s second season, both queer figures travel to India. As they interview activists and members of the LGBTQ community in Bombay and some southern provinces, much of the interrogation centers on cultural differences. In Bombay, the two interview a community of Hijras, a third gender which is recognized in India and other South Asian countries. As Page interrogates Komal, a prominent Hijra who is also a member of the Hijra-only band Six Pack, regarding their community’s role in the LGBTQ activism in India, the answer is simple: “we are not part of the LGBTQ community.”
The fact that the Hijra community is still featured as a central part of this LGBTQ travel show—echoing Western media outlets' misguided categorization of the community as transgender—while clearly denying their self-identification, speaks of the predominance of Western models of queerness inherent in the show. It ignores, furthermore, the distinctiveness of this identity as one that, as opposed to common discourse of queer rights, makes claims to the state on the basis of tradition and religion. Hijra identity as a third gender is understood as a ‘gift from god,’ and they continue to have religious and cultural significance in Hindu context given their association with Lord Shiva. The show is a clear platform for the internationalization of mainstream US queer culture and the perpetuation of US cultural assumptions in more complicated global contexts.
While there is nothing new about Western fascination with “discovering” and exotizicing foreign bodies, the deployment of queer rhetoric for such purposes is a relatively new phenomena, that ultimately seeks to perpetuate US moral exceptionalism through a lens of liberal thinking. As many other shows, Gaycation is just another platform for a crafted picture of the “foreign other.” Only in this case, it is a queer one.
Coming out culture disregards the narrative that there can also be liberation in silence. “Queers are compelled to be talking subjects, those who are ‘out and proud,’” says Brian Horton, a Ph.D. candidate at Brown’s Department of Anthropology. At last, the project of coming out began as a form to reclaim space for one’s identity among communities (particularly families) that have consistently denied it. Silence can be a matter of self-preservation, which in itself is an act of self-respect.
For marginalized groups within the queer community, coming out represents the dichotomy between defiance and survival. As a society, we must acknowledge that queer people are not just queer people and they all inhabit multiple identities. How can we then conciliate the visibility of their existence in repressive societies, allowing them to enjoy rights and greater quality of life, while not reducing their bodies to their sexual practices? How do we disrupt the system of heteronormative tradition while neither reducing people’s identities to a single label, nor forcing minorities to further endanger themselves more than they already have to on a daily basis?
Ultimately, if coming out represents the act of taking ownership of one’s sexuality, the different means to express one’s identity should be respected and celebrated with the same fervor. Otherwise, our supposed inclusivity is purely buying into structures of white supremacy and US imperialism.
Paula Pacheco Soto B’20 loves/hates Ellen Page.