A couple of weekends ago, I spent a Sunday afternoon with one of my best friends. I’m lucky that my move back to St Andrews has been cushioned by a few very good friends, who have dragged me out to have lunch or drinks or just to force me to leave my office each evening. This particular friend is someone I trust massively and am very close to, and we had a lovely afternoon wandering around in the afternoon sunshine and eating ice cream.
We ended the afternoon sitting in St Sallies Quad (one of the beautiful old University buildings) chatting about our lives and the future and current events. Eventually, the topic came round to the news that Ellen Page had publicly come out the night before. This friend is someone I’ve known for a number of years, and he’s smart and funny and clued up, and there’s not even half a chance that he’s homophobic, but he still made a comment which made me pause. The line was something along the lines of;
I can’t wait until people don’t feel the need to come out like this anymore. I don’t care who she’s sleeping with.
And part of me agrees. I wish that it wasn’t the case that anyone feels the need to come out, ever. I wish that sexuality wasn’t something that needed to be discussed. I wish that people could just date who they want without anyone even batting an eyelid, but we’re not there yet.
And there’s a bigger problem than just needing more time to pass. The reason that comments like the above are such an issue is because of the underlying societal belief that sexuality is intrinsically linked to sex. When my friend said ‘I don’t care who she’s sleeping with’ he made that leap – Ellen Page made no comment about who she was sleeping with in her speech, but it was the thing that he brought up. And I think that’s a really telling difference between how gay and straight people react when someone famous or important comes out.
Because I think most gay people know that when you come out, you’re not telling the world who it is you’re sleeping with, or who you want to sleep with. (I mean, you might be – see Michelle Rodriguez and Cara Delevingne for an example, but…) A gay woman doesn’t come out because she really wants people to know that she’s crazy about sex with girls. You come out because the world is, by default heterosexual and when you’re gay living in a straight world, it’s exhausting. Just look at the quotes from Ellen Page’s speech;
I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission. I suffered for years because I was scared to be out. My spirit suffered, my mental health suffered and my relationships suffered.
I think most anyone who has lived in the closet can empathise with these words. And at the moment, coming out is the only way to stop feeling that suffering, that exhaustion. But there is a bigger issue here. If the world did not assume that everyone was heterosexual by default, then there would be less need for these big, public announcements. There would be less need for people to come out at all.
But the world – society – does assume heterosexual by default. It’s why people like me need to come out over and over and over again – just like I wrote about back here. And it’s the thing that straight people just don’t understand. When you come to an acceptance that you like girls, that’s not the end of the story, because whilst you might have accepted it, the world hasn’t. And the majority of the population never know what it’s like to stand in front of your boss and have to stumble over your words when you tell him that you’re marrying a female colleague because you’re worried about his reaction. They will never know the awkwardness of when a doctor asks if you’re sexually active and you say “Yes, well, no, I mean – I don’t have sex with men”. They have no idea how hard it is sometimes to hear friends talk about their boyfriends or husbands thoughtlessly but then to leave the conversation when you mention your girlfriend.
And this problem, over and over and over again, comes back to the fact that the standard presumption is that everyone is straight; that heterosexuality is the default; that the gay minority are so few that who cares about ceasing to rely on stereotypes and assumptions when it comes to who people love? But here’s the thing: the only way to stop people blindly believing in the heterosexual default is for gay people to stand up and make these statements about who we love.
So this is the truth about those who come out publicly. When we stand up and say ‘I am gay’, we are not saying ‘I have sex with women’. We’re saying ‘I don’t fit into your heterosexual default, and the world should recognise that.’ Until that’s the case, I will carry on celebrating each gay person who stands up and says, this is who I am, and this is who I love. Get over it.Carley