There’s a musical episode of Boxed In — director and writer Amy York Rubin’s very funny series of digital shorts for IFC’s Comedy Crib — that kicks off with Rubin’s character receiving a news alert from TMZ: “Dianna Agron dishes on the unique intimacy of female relationships.” Rubin, sitting in a coffee shop, gets mobbed by a group of women wondering what the news alert might mean.
“Stop! Everyone stop what you’re doing!” one woman yells, knocking a coffee out of an unsuspecting patron’s hands. “A traditionally attractive female celebrity just made an ambiguous comment about her sexuality!”
The entire coffee shop bursts into song — “Tell your friends, spread the news, someone famous might be gay” — while Rubin’s character attempts to staunch the flow of their excitement.
“Seriously, this is what we care about?” she says. “What about everything on the news?”
“We’ve got news,” they sing back at her. “Someone’s gay!”
By the end of the bite-size episode, another news alert clarifies that (a fictionalized) Dianna Agron isn’t gay after all. But Rubin’s character has gotten swept up in the commotion, right when everyone’s just lost the faith: “Wait! Did you guys see this picture of Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid?”
The episode perfectly captures how easily LGBT fans can get swept up into speculation about a celebrity’s sexuality — even at a time when there are more out celebrities than ever before.
Twenty years ago, before public support for gay people was anything like what it is now, Ellen DeGeneres risked her career and made history with her 1997 “Yep, I’m Gay” Time cover story, paving the way for many of the celebrities who have proudly claimed their queerness or openly expressed affection for their partners since. Though nowadays, you’re more likely to see a celebrity casually mention their sexual orientation in a tweet or Snapchat or Instagram post than to see one more formally claiming an identity in front of the world.
But the years-long uptick in out celebrities, and the steady normalization of out queer people in Hollywood and beyond, hasn’t stopped the are-they-or-aren’t-they rumor mill from churning — if anything, it has only picked up steam. Female celebrities can inspire their own particular kind of fervor. In 2017, there’s a new generation of famous lesbians and bisexual women (celesbians, if you will) who are casually living out a real-life version of The L Word in front of our eyes, inspiring mass social media followings from fans hungry for the latest celesbian gossip — including for the many celebrities who aren’t confirmed to be sleeping with other people of the same gender, but are the subjects of constant, frantic speculation. The recent brouhaha around Demi Lovato (who’s been spotted holding hands with a female DJ, and who refused to label her sexuality in a recent interview, after which she defended her decision in a series of tweets) is the latest example of the celesbian gossip train going a bit off the rails.
Whether queer celebrities have a responsibility to come out — especially those who have referenced potentially queer experiences in their work, or who have profited from the LGBT community’s support — is a question that long precedes celebrities’ ability to tweet about it. But that question has become more complicated in a time when coming out is seemingly not as big a deal as it once was, when a new generation is embracing ideas of sexual fluidity and eschewing labels, and, as always, there is no simple, clear-cut binary of “out” versus “in.” For female celebrities, that complication is compounded by the gal-palification of intimacy between women, which happens less frequently now in the tabloids but still makes the rounds (like it did with Lovato in September).
We’re also living through yet another revival of “lesbian chic” — a theme in fashion and pop culture at large that paints a certain kind of edgy, feminine-leaning androgyny as the next new hot thing, boiling lesbianism down to a passing but commodifiable fad. And while positive representation of queer women on television is on the rise, it’s still far from perfect, leading many LGBT fans to look to celebrity gossip on social media to get their fix of queer drama — and queer possibility. As more famous women continue to come out at younger and younger ages (much like the general population), our cultural fascination with the way they introduce and perform their queerness is only continuing to grow. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on who you ask.
Demi Lovato’s sexuality has been the subject of speculation for years. While promoting her new album, Tell Me You Love Me, released late last month, Lovato gave an interview to PrideSource’s Chris Azzopardi that reignited an old debate. They spoke about her LGBT activism: She’s headlined pride events, including filming her 2013 video for “Really Don’t Care” at LA Pride, and last year accepted the GLAAD Vanguard Award, which honors entertainers who have promoted LGBT rights.
But when Azzopardi mentioned that Lovato’s sexuality has been “thoroughly dissected” on the internet, and gave her the “opportunity to speak on it as directly as you’d like,” Lovato swerved: “Thank you for the opportunity, but I think I'm gonna pass.” She explained that she chooses not to speak openly about her orientation because “I just feel like everyone's always looking for a headline and they always want their magazine or TV show or whatever to be the one to break what my sexuality is. I feel like it's irrelevant to what my music is all about.”
Earlier, Azzopardi had asked about the criticism her 2015 song “Cool for the Summer” had received from some lesbian websites like AfterEllen for, they argued, implying that women should sample queer sexual relationships only temporarily, and keep it a secret. “My intention with the song was just fun and bi-curiosity,” Lovato said. “I think people look at song lyrics — they look too into it. I wish I could tell that website to ‘chill the fuck out’ and ‘take a break,’ because it's just a song.”
The interview, published on September 15, gained a lot of attention, particularly because Lovato had just been spotted with a “gal pal” — a phrase that many lesbians have started to consider a sort of no-homo dog whistle for “possible girlfriend” — at a Disney outing a few days earlier. The gal pal in question was out DJ and producer Lauren Abedini. The two were photographed holding hands (and more), leading to widespread speculation that they might be dating. (Lovato’s publicist did not respond to a request for comment.) Lovato declined to talk about her sexuality, but hinted that her new YouTube documentary coming out on October 17 might detail “some” things about her sexuality, “because if ever I want to talk about it, I want it to be on my own terms."
But the internet really blew up after HuffPost’s Noah Michelson wrote an essay declaring that “Demi Lovato’s Reason For Refusing To Talk About Her Sexuality Is Total Bulls**t.” Lovato responded directly to Michelson, tweeting, “Expectant and rude. Watch my documentary and chill out.” She also tweeted a couple more general statements to her 49 million followers, which garnered her a number of you-go-girl writeups from places like InStyle and PopSugar: “Just because I'm refuse [sic] to label myself for the sake of a headline doesn't mean I'm not going to stand up for what I believe in ... If you’re that curious about my sexuality, watch my documentary. But I don’t owe anybody anything.”
In his piece, Michelson argued that Lovato is open about so many other aspects of her personal life — so why not this one?
Michelson told me that he has written about his beliefs that “sexual orientation should not be considered a ‘private’ characteristic before, and it’s never gone over well.” But, he said, he wasn’t expecting Lovato to respond, and he “didn’t expect so many people to misunderstand what I was saying.”
Michelson believes in the political power of coming out, for all of those in a position to do so, but especially feels that “those who present themselves as allies and/or make money off of their relationship with the queer community … have an even greater responsibility to be open about who they are. How can they look us in the eyes and tell us how brave we are for being who we are or how proud we should stand — and ask us to fill their pockets — if they won’t do the same?” Michelson stressed that “people can refuse to talk about their orientation,” though he generally thinks they shouldn’t, “but the reason for it should not be ‘that’s private’ — especially in the specific context of who Lovato says she is and claims to stand for.”
It isn’t only journalists, though, who may have taken issue with Lovato’s message. In a June interview for Paper Magazine, out bisexual pop singer Halsey — who earlier this summer released “Strangers” with a fellow out bi singer, Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui, and who has been a vocal LGBT activist — called out pop songs about experimental hookups, which she said perpetuate “Bisexuality as a taboo. ‘Don't tell your mom’ or ‘We shouldn't do this’ or ‘This feels so wrong but it's so right’ … That narrative is so fucking damaging to bisexuality and its place in society.” Halsey didn’t mention Lovato specifically, but the lyrics sound like they were plucked from both “Cool for the Summer” and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” Lovato, at least, appeared to interpret Halsey’s criticisms that way at the time, tweeting what looked like a response. (When asked for comment on the interview and Lovato’s tweet, a representative for Halsey responded that “the two are friends and there is no drama and no comment,” pointing to Lovato’s Instagram post from July showing Halsey and Lovato posing merrily together. “Happy National Coming Out Day Positivity to you!” she added.)
It’s an age-old debate in the queer community: Do celebrities have a political or moral imperative to come out? Scores of Demi Lovato’s stans, who flooded Michelson’s mentions after Lovato tweeted at him, certainly don’t seem to think so — they defended Lovato’s choice, echoing her words that she doesn’t “owe” anybody anything. Many of them also believe that the matter has to do with her privacy, and she should not be “forced” to come out, accusing Michelson of essentially outing her. But especially in the case of celebrities who have referenced same-sex sexual experiences in their work, or have appeared in public getting cozy with an out gay person, what actually counts as being “outed”?
That question was on many minds a decade ago, when Lindsay Lohan and Sam Ronson, or LoRo, were posting photos of each other on Myspace and kissing in public. (So, long before she was defending Harvey Weinstein on Instagram Stories.) Lohan — who has since described her on-and-off relationship with Ronson as “toxic”, and whose representative did not return a request for comment — never publicly announced whether or not they were dating at the time. But, as my colleague Kate Aurthur wrote in 2008 when she was at the LA Times, that didn’t stop celebrity magazines from churning out speculative stories about their relationship.
LoRo marked a sea change in the world of celebrity culture, because up until that point, print publications had “generally employed their own form of don't ask/don't tell when covering gay or bisexual celebrities who have not come out via press release or some other explicit declaration.” Aurthur spoke with prominent gossip columnist Michael Musto, who is openly gay and has been writing, sometimes controversially, about closeted celebrities for years: “Traditionally, the media has been as interested in closeting celebrities as the celebrities themselves have been,” he said. “I've read things in gossip columns that would never go there in the past and realized, ‘Wow, they're going there now.’ They don't consider gay a dirty thing anymore. And it's very cool.” (I reached out to Musto to see what he thinks about the current state of the celebrity closet, but he hadn't responded by publication time.)
LoRo forced the gossip press, gay media, and the public at large to consider whether or not reporting on an unconfirmed queer relationship counts as “outing” them — a question that came up again in a big way in 2015, when Kristen Stewart’s mother, Jules Stewart, gave an interview to the Sunday Mirror apparently confirming that Kristen was in a relationship at the time with Alicia Cargile. “I've met Kristen's new girlfriend,” she said, “I like her.” The story went viral — many of Stewart’s fans and multiple media outlets accused her mother of “outing” her daughter to the world. (At the time, the younger Stewart had not formally made an announcement about her sexuality, and she had always avoided discussing her dating life to the press, even back when she was dating Robert Pattinson.) Soon afterward, Jules Stewart denied speaking about Kristen’s dating life in the interview, though the reporter stood by her story, saying that she’d taped their conversation.
The Jules Stewart debacle revealed how fraught the concept of “outing” has remained. Kristen Stewart and Cargile lived together; they went grocery shopping together; they were photographed kissing on a beach in Hawaii. At that point, they were relatively open about their relationship, except for giving it an official name. Could Stewart really have been “outed” by her mother if, in some ways, she was never really hiding?
Stewart (who, through her representative, did not respond to a request for comment) is perhaps the most famous female celebrity to have gotten frequently gal-palled by the tabloids — which went on for years, even after Stewart publicly addressed her relationship with Cargile in a 2016 interview, and even after she identified herself as “so gay, dude,” on SNL earlier this year, causing lesbians everywhere to lose their shit. Stewart has formally and officially come out in different ways multiple times now, most recently talking about the fluidity of sexuality and indicating that “it’s not confusing at all” if you’re bisexual: “For me, it’s quite the opposite.” But even she is not yet free from being BFF’d or gal-palled — an April screenshot from the Daily Mail’s Snapchat Discover calling Stewart and her current girlfriend, the supermodel Stella Maxwell, “sisters in arms” caused a stir on Celesbian Twitter.
But it wasn’t only the tabloids and the media at large that danced awkwardly around Stewart and Cargile’s relationship, and Stewart’s later relationships with other women. A popular member of Celesbian Twitter who preferred to be identified by her middle name, Emilia, told me via Twitter DM that some of Stewart’s fans circa her Twilight days can be just as bad, if not worse, than the tabloids when it comes to downplaying Stewart’s queerness.
“Back in the day you couldn’t even talk about Kristen being interested in women because her fans refused to accept that being a reality,” she said. Even though it’s been years since Stewart and Cargile broke up, and Stewart has publicly dated multiple other women since — including the French singer Soko, Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent, and currently Stella Maxwell — Emilia says that “those Robsten fans are never going to give up ... I’ve seen some of them claim that she hasn’t moved on because she hasn’t dated a man since Rob, and only when she dates a man will she truly move on.” Emilia considers these theories “very invalidating of Kristen’s choice to date a woman instead of Rob (or any other man).”
Now, for the most part, the gossip press — even the Daily Mail — has gotten used to reporting on Stewart’s dating life using terms like “dating” and “girlfriend,” though they can still slip back into old habits with other celebrities. The Daily Mail (representatives for which didn’t return a request for comment) reverted to gal pal language when Lovato and Abedini went on what looked suspiciously like a date at Disney California Adventure, but that kind of coverage was in the minority; plenty of other outlets speculated that the two looked like more than friends. According to Page Six, the outing “sparked rumors of a possible romance.” Autostraddle: “Demi Lovato Almost Maybe Possibly Has a Girlfriend Now.” Even though Lovato is not, by some definitions, “out” — as in, she has not given herself a label, though she has said that “love is fluid” in the past — pointing out that two women might, in fact, be dating seems less likely to inspire accusations of “outing” them than it has in the past.
But there’s no grand consensus on that front. Michelson says that he wasn’t “trying to drag” Lovato “out of the closet” with his piece. “It’s not up to me to say when someone should come out of the closet, and we don’t cover stories like ‘Demi Lovato seen holding hands with a girl at Disneyland!’ at HuffPost,” he said. “I didn’t even mention that (alleged) story in my piece about Demi. Why? Because it’s not relevant to the questions I was asking.”
Stef Schwartz, a founding member and “self-appointed Vapid Fluff Editor” at Autostraddle, told me when we spoke this past spring that the site shoots for “funny but respectful coverage” of queer celebrities, with a tone that’s “more affectionate” than the typical tabloid. “I think we try really hard to make clear we’re poking fun at this genre — we use ‘gal pal’ pretty frequently.” When it comes to the topic of “outing,” though, Schwartz was more circumspect. “We try really hard not to out anybody who’s not really consensually out,” she said. For No Filter, Autostraddle’s column on celebrity social media, “we try in particular to only cover explicitly queer people... but it’s tricky.”
The fact that there are different approaches to covering queer or maybe-queer celebrities is only indicative of how much the conversation around queer celebrities has changed. Elaine Lui, better known as Lainey from her immensely popular and well-respected blog Lainey Gossip, told me when we spoke on the phone earlier this year that Kristen Stewart — arguably the most internationally famous young queer woman in the spotlight over the last few years — has been evidence of that.
“In the past, the story used to be: So and so is gay,” said Lui. “That’s the scoop. If I were to draw a comparison between ‘straight’ gossip, for lack of a better way of saying it, when we gossip about straight celebrities and romances and love lives, it’s ‘He was dating her, then he was dating her, he was flirting with somebody else, does that mean he cheating with her, she was talking with this other guy, she had chemistry with other guy on set…’ We weren’t getting that with gay celebs.”
Now, she said, “with Kristen Stewart, it’s not just ‘Kristen Stewart is gay.’ It’s ‘Kristen Stewart dated four people in 2016, she’s a serial monogamist, she’s a player’ — in the same way we might talk about how Kate Hudson is a man-eater.”
Lui has written about how Stewart has started taking a “no apologies” approach to her dating life. “It’s a credit to her that she’s living her life, being authentic,” she told me. “Whenever she gets a girlfriend or breaks up with one person, she doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that she’s with somebody else — she knows what people are gonna say, how they’re going to talk. I don’t want to put intention in her mind but I feel like she’s contributing to that normalization. Straight actresses are talked about that way all the time.”
“I don’t want to go so far as to say that’s achieving equality,” Lui said. But she wondered what the current, ever-fraught state of gossip means for achieving something like equality in the future.
Part of the reason that Stewart and her relationships have drawn such an overwhelming amount of attention from queer fans and the public at large is that she’s among the ranks of “lesbian cool girls,” as a June Vogue story put it. “With their beauty, and their jet-set lifestyles, and their insouciant miens,” celesbians “are performing a vital role in bringing lesbians into the American mainstream.”
High-femme lesbianism’s current cultural moment is also in evidence on one of the covers for Vogue Italia’s “Bacio!” September 2017 issue, where two feminine women wearing tiny crocheted tops are photographed in black and white, sharing a half-hearted kiss while one of them stares directly into the camera, meeting the public’s greedy gaze.
The idea of “lesbian chic” is, of course, far from new. Its modern iteration kicked off in 1993, when k.d. lang, wearing a men’s three-piece suit, received a shave from Cindy Crawford on the August cover of Vanity Fair, leaning contentedly into Crawford’s breasts. The Canadian singer also graced another famous cover earlier that year, for New York mag, announcing “the bold and brave new world of gay women” over the gigantic words “LESBIAN CHIC.” It was a big summer for the rest of the world waking up and discovering lesbians exist — Newsweek had a cover of its own that June, featuring a couple embracing under a cover line that said simply, and rather hilariously, “LESBIANS.”
Nearly a decade later came The L Word, a Showtime series created by executive producer and out lesbian Ilene Chaiken. The show, about a group of glamorous queer women living in West Hollywood, spurred another resurgence of “lesbian chic” (just a year after Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera infamously kissed at the VMAs). The main characters, who were almost all white and almost all feminine or feminine-adjacent, didn’t come close to representing the vast diversity of the queer community in terms of race, socioeconomic status, or gender presentation — but they did, for better or worse, put lesbians on the cultural map. A 2004 New York mag cover declared that these women were “not your mother’s lesbians.” Once relegated to the butt of sitcom jokes and SNL gaffes, The L Word was making lesbianism sexy. Recently, amid yet another era of “lesbian chic”, it was announced that a sequel was in the works at Showtime, to the sorts of famously mixed reactions The L Word has always inspired.
Seeing lesbianism commodified and glamorized in trendy waves can be frustrating for a lot of lesbians, who get tired of hearing this message from mainstream pop culture: Congrats, your marginalized identity is cool now, so long as you perform it in a super-specific way that caters to capitalism and the male gaze!
But of course, queer culture breaking through the mainstream, and vice versa, isn’t all bad. Autostraddle, now the world’s biggest independent website for lesbians and queer women, actually has its roots in L Word internet fandom — the site, which launched in 2009, grew out of editor-in-chief Riese Bernard’s blog about the show. Now, Autostraddle is a widely beloved source for queer news, pop culture, and online community. Since The L Word has long since been off the air, gossiping about the latest crop of lesbian celebrities has, for some Autostraddle members, filled the space that the show left behind. “I’ve been joking that Kristen Stewart’s paid my phone bill for the past two years,” Schwartz told me.
When I spoke to Amy York Rubin earlier this year, she said she’d been inspired to write the musical “Fame” episode of Boxed In because rumor-mongering about celebrities’ sexuality “felt like such a recurrent thing.” The first time she noticed both LGBT people and gossip mags freaking out about a traditionally attractive female celebrity’s maybe-queerness was during the Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson craze of the mid-2000s. Lohan was one of the first famous women seen canoodling with another woman that Rubin could remember who “didn’t have the stereotypical look of a lesbian — which is problematic, but the truth of our culture,” she said.
In the years following LoRo, said Rubin, there were suddenly “these [queer] women who were cool. They were sex objects. This started becoming true with Kristen Stewart and Cara Delevingne — everyone gets excited, thinking, Hey, maybe there’s somebody like me who looks like the type of woman that our culture values and holds up. Even though that’s so wrong, and part of a larger problem.”
The visibility of young queer or maybe-queer women wouldn’t have been made possible without Ellen DeGeneres and other assigned-female Gen-X and boomer celebrities across the art, news, and entertainment worlds, who have changed the landscape for today’s LGBT celebrities. Ellen came out when she was 39; now famous people — and regular people, for that matter — are coming out at younger and younger ages. Big-name celesbians like Stewart, Delevingne, Annie Clark, and Evan Rachel Wood date other women, party in New York and LA, and star in international beauty campaigns as well as gigantic film franchises. Stewart and Delevingne, in particular, aren’t just famous in more niche markets the way some of their queer forebears were — they are global superstars.
But that isn’t to say that the floodgates have been opened for everyone. It is, perhaps, no surprise that some of the most popular queer female celebrities working in more mainstream media today are conventionally beautiful women (read: thin, white, relatively femme) dating other conventionally beautiful women — though celebrities like Samira Wiley and Lena Waithe, who both have had extraordinarily successful years, are battling that standard.
“I really like that there’s a celesbian fandom now and we can actually talk about these queer women and their love lives with other girls who are interested in that sort of thing,” said Emilia, the Celesbian Twitter user. “I’m just really happy to see someone I’ve liked since I was teenager also being queer and publically dating women, and I think it’s fun to follow it.”
It’s not only famous, out-queer women who garner enormous queer followings — there are plenty of corners of Celesbian Twitter devoted to “proving” that seemingly straight celebrities are queer. Last year, Broadly investigated the popular conspiracy theory that Taylor Swift is secretly gay, and dating her bestie Karlie Kloss. (Swift has denied these rumors.)
These theories — and celesbian gossip in general — are a welcome reprieve from the horrors of the news cycle lately. A bunch of retweets and reblogs of Kristen Stewart and Stella Maxwell wearing each other’s clothes and going on a coffee run are nothing if not pleasantly low-stakes. Celesbian gossip is fun for the same reason any kind of gossip is: It’s salacious, and sexy, and funny, and it’s just something to talk about.
But these conversations also stem in part from queer people’s desire to see themselves reflected in pop culture. The way we talk about queer celebrities is ultimately a way we can talk about ourselves. These celebrities are our avatars, upon whom we can project our complicated feelings about the closet, about queer respectability and assimilation, about how big or small a part of our public identities our queerness should be, about monogamy and domesticity, about life and love. Gossip isn’t always “just” gossip; sometimes, it’s a common language.
On a recent episode of comedian Cameron Esposito’s podcast, Queery, she and Tegan Quin (of the band Tegan and Sara) discussed how frustrating it is that because they are openly gay, their acts have sometimes been assumed to be “just” for lesbian audiences, and pushing back against that false assumption can make you seem as though you don’t appreciate your lesbian fans. “It’s an awful bear trap,” said Quin.
Quin also brought up a time a few years ago, right before she and Sara were set to open for Katy Perry’s tour, that she was talking to a queer artist she’d never met before, whom she respects and looks up to. Quin said that their band had made a concerted effort to make a pop record to reach a larger audience, because as of 2012, there were few to no queer voices in the mainstream. The other queer artist responded saying that was cool — and maybe the Katy Perry tour would be an opportunity for her and Sara, her twin sister, to come out.
“And I was like, huh?” Quin remembered. “This was 2012 — I was like, we’ve been out since 1988! But this was not the first time this has happened.” If people are still doubting the outness of Tegan and Sara, two of the most visible and successful lesbians in pop culture, what does that mean for everybody else?
In a post-marriage-equality world, even the most famous queer people still face challenges, whether they’re being accused of coming out “for attention,” they have limited dating options because many women in the entertainment industry are still not out, or they’re told that being honest about their sexuality would hurt their careers. Many women — famous and unfamous — are still fetishized, belittled or disbelieved, no matter how many times they “officially” come out.
When Demi Lovato’s documentary comes out on October 17, she may or may not choose to make a formal declaration about her sexuality. No matter what, she’s sure to inspire more conversations, more debate, more accusations, more celebration.
In an ideal world, no one would have to make a formal declaration about who they sleep with or fall in love with, over and over again, ad infinitum. But it’s also hard to imagine what that kind of world might look like, since LGBT people are still a minority (though some studies suggest that could change). Perhaps we will always have to make ourselves known, in some way, whether it’s in a documentary, or on a magazine cover, or on social media; whether it’s to a new doctor, or a new coworker, or to a new friend. Regardless, there’s little chance we’ll ever develop a consensus on what’s good and right and appropriate when it comes to coming out, and what goes on afterward: the being out part. Which is kind of exhausting — how long are we all going to keep talking about this? — but, in a way, it’s kind of thrilling, too. We’re still invested in figuring out what’s supposed to happen next. ●