I was 14 years old and sitting on the floor of my friend’s living room after a long party when someone suggested that we play a game of Truth or Dare. With the lights dimmed low, six or so of my classmates and I gathered around in a circle on a woolly ornate rug and answered the most pressing questions about our ninth-grade lives: “Who do you have a crush on?” “Are you a virgin?” “Do you smoke weed?”
Then it was my turn: “Are you gay?”
One by one, I looked at each of my friends, feeling the blood rush from my face. I was confronted with two choices: to come out then and there or lie. I weighed the pros and cons. If I lied, someone might later use that moment against me as proof that I wasn’t honest about my sexuality, but I wasn’t ready to come out. So I lied. Immediately, I could see in some of my friends’ expressions that they didn’t believe me.
It felt like an attempt to out me before I was ready or humiliate me for lying.
That night wasn’t the first time I was asked if I was gay. After I hit puberty and was left with a “gay lisp” that many other boys didn’t have, I was asked about my sexuality—through anonymous forums and roundabout questions (“Do you think that boy is cute?”) attempting to catch me in my attraction to men. But that game of Truth or Dare was the first time that I was asked point-blank and put on the spot to answer a question that my classmates—some of whom I knew well; some of whom I never had a significant conversation with—had been wondering for years.
No matter which way I looked at it, it was a lose-lose situation: It felt like an attempt to out me before I was ready or humiliate me for lying. It didn’t matter what I said. They already made their assumptions, and I wasn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of being right. Recalling that moment makes me wonder what it’s like to be closeted as a celebrity. I was asked a deeply personal question in front of six people who would then spread the news to the few hundred students at my high school. But what about celebrities, who must answer to millions?
In March, model Kendall Jenner was asked about her sexuality by Vogue. The interviewer approached the subject in a roundabout way, asking for Jenner’s response to long-standing rumors that she might be gay because of her tomboy love for vintage cars and sneakers and her private, almost-invisible relationships with men—especially when compared with her sisters. (“I’m Pretty Sure Kendall Jenner Is Gay, and I Have Evidence for Days” read a 2017 Babe.net headline.) Regardless of how it was asked, the question seemingly aimed to prod Jenner into giving a definitive answer about whether or not she was gay. She told Vogue no.
Kendall Jenner’s answer—as with anyone’s answer about their sexuality—isn’t definitive.
But Jenner’s answer—as with anyone’s answer about their sexuality—isn’t definitive. What she said in March might not be true today, next year or decades from now. Sexuality is fluid, complex and ever-changing, and not simply defined and resolved in a onetime interaction. Besides, if Jenner is gay or questioning her sexuality, she doesn’t owe that answer to anyone—and asking her only fuels our ever-growing receipts culture and tempts toxic trolls to use Jenner’s words to frame her as a liar.
That’s what happened to singer Ricky Martin in 2000 when he was pressed by Barbara Walters to dispel rumors about his sexuality. Though Martin didn’t confirm or deny anything (“Sexuality is something that each individual has to deal with in their own way. That’s all I have to say about that.”), the interview was used as ammunition years later, when he came out in 2010, to make fun of his wavering stance. The same happened to YouTube star Connor Franta, who came out in a video in 2014 and was mocked in tweets featuring side-by-side screenshots of his “Coming Out” video and one from three years earlier titled “I’m Not Gay” that he posted to shut down speculation over his sexuality.
There’s a difference between letting people come out on their terms and assuming they’re straight because they haven’t said otherwise.
When actor Jack Falahee, who plays a gay character on ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” was asked about his sexuality in a 2016 Out interview, he called the question “reductive,” saying, “I don’t think answering who I’m sleeping with accomplishes anything other than quenching the thirst of curiosity.” Actor Tom Hardy shut down a similar question about his sexuality, a full seven years after an Attitude interview in which he suggested that he had sexual relations with both men and women. “What on earth are you on about?” Hardy asked the reporter before ending the line of questioning with a terse “thank you.” In 2016, singer Shawn Mendes, whose sexuality has been speculated about for years on the internet, shut down rumors that he’s gay with a Snapchat video calling out people who claim that he has a “gay vibe” because of the way he speaks and acts. “The focus should be on my music, not my sexuality,” Mendes said.
Regardless of whether these celebrities are gay, straight or questioning, they shouldn’t have to answer to anyone about their sexuality. Like Martin says, people have the right to figure out their sexuality on their own, without being put on the spot with personal questions they might not be ready to answer. However, there’s a difference between allowing people to come out on their own terms and assuming that people are straight just because they haven’t told you otherwise. In a perfect world, “coming out” wouldn’t exist: Sexuality in all its infinite forms would be normalized, and people would love who they love without anyone looking at them differently. But in an age when children are still bullied, abandoned and killed for being gay, outing someone is rude at best and dangerous at worst.
Someone’s sexuality isn’t a ‘scoop.’ It’s their life.
That’s not to say that questions about sexuality are off-limits. As long as it comes from a place of caring and concern, rather than nosiness, providing someone with a safe space can help them come out—which, in turn, can help others do the same. The problem comes when people make unfounded assumptions about sexuality (based, for instance, on Jenner’s tomboyish qualities or Mendes’s “gay vibe” mannerisms) and ask them if they’re gay, only to punish them for their answer with judgment, smugness or gloating. “Assuming sexual orientation based on external presentation or on behaviors alone can be problematic and actually can end up being quite shaming rather than affirming,” says Philip Rutter, PhD., a sexuality professor at Widener University.
Someone’s sexuality isn’t a “scoop” or a “story.” It’s their life, and they have every right to keep it private. As a journalist who is also guilty of asking celebrities about their sexuality and personal lives, I’m a part of the problem. But I’ve learned that someone else’s sexuality is their story to tell. Not mine.