In a Vulture profile, Lucas Hedges (from Lady Bird and the upcoming film Boy Erased) came out. But he didn’t come out as a specific identity; instead he came out by telling us what he isn’t: “Not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual.”
He went on to talk about how he identifies with being on a spectrum and that he was jealous of people who could speak with certainty about their identity. “People expect you as an actor to have a voice that’s set in some way, and that’s really not what I am,” he said. “I’m very much within the conflict and confusion of my own life, still, and I definitely feel a pressure to step up in a way.
It seems like Hedges is part of a growing number of young Hollywood people who come out as “not straight” or “not cisgender” rather than one set identity. The other big example is Amandla Stenberg, who has been gracious enough throughout her career to let us in on her exploratory journey of sexuality and gender identity.
The way Janelle Monae came out also put an emphasis on fluidity, as she declared herself to be “a free-ass motherfucker.”
Over the last couple of years, data has shown an increase in the number of young people identifying as LGBTQ in the United States. About 20 percent of Millennials identify as LGBTQ and about 50 percent of Gen Z kids identify as something other than straight. Around half — that’s wild. For the Gen Z research, survey participants were asked to rate their sexuality on a scale of zero to six, zero being completely straight. Only 48 percent identified as completely straight while one third identified between one and five on the scale, indicating some degree of interest in more than one gender.
The way people relate to their identity is changing and that’s ultimately a really good thing, but it feels like mainstream LGBTQ politics aren’t changing with them. There is still a stigma against bisexual and gender non-binary folks. I recently talked to three gay men who didn’t believe any gay man was really versatile and my soul almost left my body. These rigid views from our own community are detrimental to future queer people.
In the profile, Hedges talks about the shame he felt around his identity, with not being “100 percent” one thing “because it was clear that one side of sexuality presents issues, and the other doesn’t as much.” This is very wise for a young person to understand, but also kind of heartbreaking. From discussing power dynamics and marginalization, it’s nice that Hedges is able to recognize a form of privilege he has. On the other hand, it’s kind of sad that this understanding has made him hesitant and ashamed of his own identity.
A similar dilemma can be seen in conversation around racial politics. Mixed race people or first generation immigrants often talk about feeling like they’re between two things; and not enough of either. Part of the problem is that the way we often talk about our communities and identities are steeped in activism and the marginalization we experience. This is understandable; it’s not easy to be queer or a person of color and we often get united by the universal experience of oppression that we’ve felt. However, it can often force people to prescribe their identities by the things they’ve experienced — you’re not X if you haven’t experienced Y.
The present landscape of mainstream LGBTQ politics seems to stem, at least partially, from a place of respectability politics. In 1987, an essay titled “The Overhauling of Straight America” was published in Guide magazine. It outlined a PR strategy for how gay people could gain acceptance in straight society.
The essay advocated for gay people to portray themselves as victims in order to gain straight sympathy. “If gays are presented, instead, as a strong and prideful tribe promoting a rigidly nonconformist and deviant lifestyle, they are more likely to be seen as a public menace that justifies resistance and oppression. For that reason, we must forego the temptation to strut our ‘gay pride’ publicly when it conflicts with the Gay Victim image.”
Fluidity and radical queerness do a lot of harm if you’re going for the tactics of “we’re just like you!”
In addition, from the way some older gays and lesbians talk about younger queer people, I’ve gathered that there is a sense of ownership or protection over their identity. A common TERF talking point is that trans women are attempting to “co-opt” women’s spaces. And I think, to some degree, this is how some people feel about sexual or gender fluidity. You haven’t had the same experiences as me, so why should I consider you part of my group?
In a piece for INTO about Tessa Thompson coming out, Jill Gutowitz talked about the pressure that seems to come from LGBTQ people needing to come out and specify their identity. In response to Thompson talking about her feeling a sense of responsibility for coming out, Jill wrote that “we never know what’s going on in a person’s life, what their families are like, or what their journey to coming out was like, and it’s 100 percent unfair to demand a person come out, or to drag a person out of the closet—whether they’re public-facing or not.”
It’s the coolest thing ever to watch younger people like Hedges, 21, and Stenberg, 19, come out and be open about their uncertainty with their own sexuality or gender. The fact that they feel comfortable enough in the process to not declare one specific category is really powerful. It’s time that the rest of us catch up.