Why We Want Celebrities to Be Queer Like Us

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There’s a singer that I’ve always hoped is queer. She isn’t, so I’m not naming her here, but since the first time I heard and saw her, I’ve wanted her to be.

One reason I’ve had this hope is that she’s a phenomenal musician. To have her amongst today’s queer female musicians would be another win for queer pop culture. The other reason is personal and not easily explainable: I just want her to be. I discovered Brandi Carlile relatively late, but as soon as that rasp crept into her voice in “The Story” (I blame Melissa Etheridge for that association), I guessed she might be gay. And she was. But not so with this singer. She has many of the hallmarks I learned to look for in queer female musicians when I was younger, but she just isn’t one.

It isn’t uncommon to hope that a celebrity is queer. Hopeful discussions of stars’ sexual orientation have been had ever since it became more acceptable to have them. Responses to stars’ sexualities have historically been mixed, but members of the queer community have often drawn strength from them. Though he would later identify as strictly heterosexual, David Bowie’s genderbending bisexual stage persona in the 1970s inspired multiple generations of LGBT people to strive for iconoclastic self-acceptance. The promotion of female celebrities as queer (the marketing of Jessie J, for instance) isn’t meant only to appeal to those who fetishize women’s relationships but also to those who hope for representation of their own identities.

rianbowvia Getty

Often, we pin our hopes that a star is really “one of us” when there are grounds to do so. Very few celebrities come out as a genuine surprise. Ellen Page’s coming out at the HRC’s Time to Thrive conference in 2014 was powerful, but not entirely unanticipated. Many fans already suspected she was gay, and others hoped she was. I had friends who were already invoking her name as if she were a gay saint long before she went public. Word of her coming out went around with a sense of vindication: Called it. Knew it. Told you so. 

Hoping for another person to have a particular identity is a risky subject, I feel. What right do I (or does anyone else) have to wish for another person to have a particular experience, especially when it is as significant as sexual orientation? But hoping is a natural part of the way we all relate to each other. We want to feel that we are connected to others, that we have common ground.

There is a difference between hoping for more queer people to become public figures and hoping specific public figures will turn out be queer. In the first instance, we essentially want to see members of our own community, with all its branches and variations, succeed without hiding themselves. Once strictly forbidden from acknowledging their own sexuality if they wanted mainstream success, many contemporary queer artists and performers have a bit more leeway in their self-identification. Not much in some cases, but certainly more than they once had. The more queer people who manage to claw out success, the more the queer community as a whole may benefit from their visibility. Queer people who manage to get past the gatekeepers can give voice to queer experiences to a larger audience.

But when it comes to hoping celebrities (and others who work in the public eye) are queer, there are other considerations. These are people who have already made it. Maybe they’re not “household name” famous, but they’ve carved out a spot for themselves. They’ve done so without identifying themselves as queer or, in some cases, without being queer. But fans still hope for that big public statement or the surreptitious paparazzi photos of a same-sex date. We want this person to be one of us.

Here, instead of wanting queer people to find fame, we want famous people to be queer. In these cases, we’re already fans. What we want now is not just common ground but common ground with a specific person.

Sometimes this desire also relates to visibility. When artists who already have a following, especially a mainstream one, reveal themselves to be queer, it isn’t as easy for the industry or the public to ignore them. A gay indie guitarist may be overlooked, but a Hollywood A-lister coming out won’t be. By revealing themselves to be queer, such public figures bring queer sexualities into the spotlight. They show that queerness can’t and won’t always be relegated to the fringes of the industry. They prove that they didn’t make it to “pander” (God, I hate that word) to LGBT audiences but because of their own abilities.

They also, whether intentionally or not, become role models for those queer folks who, despite not having a mainstream sexual or gender identity, enjoy mainstream media. Earlier this year, Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg was specifically hailed as a role model by mainstream media outlets when she came out as bisexual, having also been publicly identified as one in 2015 for her work as an emerging culture critic and a social justice activist. The work she has done since the franchise’s first film speaks to the powerful potential of mainstream recognition for queer artists and their fans.

There are also personal reasons for hoping that a star is queer. In the case of the singer mentioned at the start of this article, it’s because she simply fits the image of lesbian musicians I’ve had in my head since “Come to My Window” was high on mainstream charts. She’s got the style and the sound that I searched for when I was secretly looking for music by queer women back in the days when we actually had to do that at brick-and-mortar stores. More personally, she reminds me of my first same-sex love. Whenever she covers this one originally male song and doesn’t change the line about corrupting the good girl, I’m instantly reminded of the tough-looking, rock ‘n roll loving girl from way back when who helped me find this part of myself. I want to feel like that line means the same thing to her that it means to me.

I struck out with this one. But there are plenty of other artists to hope for. 

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