Last week, Rita Ora dropped “Girls,” a massive pop collaboration alongside Bebe Rexha, Cardi B, and Charli XCX. The song, a Sapphic ode to girl-on-girl attraction, drew immediate backlash and criticism from queer artists like Hayley Kiyoko, Kehlani, DJ Kittens, and Katie Gavin of Muna, which opened a larger discussion on Twitter about how female queerness is portrayedor should be portrayedin pop music, and who is allowed to participate in that conversation.
Both Ora, the purveyor of the controversial song, and rapper Cardi B have publicly acknowledged having romps with women in the past. Regardless, the social media firestorm demanded an apology, or at least a statement from Ora, who both fans and artists alike felt was appropriating female queerness or exploiting it for commercial profita repeat of Katy Perry and her 2008 hit “I Kissed A Girl,” which Ora said her own track was inspired by.
This morning, the British pop star released an official statement on social media, declaring once and for all that she is queer, and the experiences she sings of in “Girls” are true to her experience. That broke my heart, because we’ve been here before too many timesother queer pop stars or celebrities have been dragged out of the closet in recent years, which is harmfulbut we need to learn to accept celebrities as being queer without over-the-top “coming out” cover stories.
— Rita Ora (@RitaOra) May 14, 2018
Rita Ora wasn’t necessarily “in the closet,” to be clear. Just about a year ago, the 27-year old singer told #Legend Magazine that she and model Cara Delevingne had a sexually “ambiguous” relationship. However, she didn’t use explicit language to define the nature of their relationship. She never used the word “bisexual.” She didn’t treat the moment as a mammoth “coming out” story, so we brushed it off.
American media is obsessed with labels and sexualitythat’s not news. So, one year later, when the singer-songwriter started talking about the release of “Girls,” reporters began asking: Is Rita Ora’s new song “inspired by her own sexuality?” Before the song dropped, Ora told People that she “always looked at this song as a real gender-fluid freedom record.” She added, “It really represents freedom and the chance to be what you want to be and there being no judgment and just living your life as you want to live it. That’s what this song represents to me every time I hear it.” But the reporter kept pushing for an overt declaration, asking if she was “trying to share something” about her own sexuality.
Ora responded, “I’m not hiding what I am, who I am, if I wanna do this, if I wanna do that. That’s just how it’s gonna be. For me and my career, this is definitely the most open-booked I’ve ever been, if that’s a word.” To me, that sounds like a pretty open admission from Ora, who is clearly proclaiming, “Yes, this song is about me and my experiences,” without actually saying, “I eat pussy.” And she shouldn’t have to say itit’s not that difficult to read between the lines. Sexual fluidity is a completely valid sexual IDthe problem is, we don’t often accept celebrities as being a part of the LGBTQ community without the use of explicit labels or declarationsand that’s regressive.
As a result of such, both fans and queer artists were offended by “Girls,” because they found it inauthentic. Rexha and Charli XCX have never spoken publicly about swinging both ways, but Ora has, and so has Cardiin 2016, the MC told The Breakfast Club radio show that she’s dabbled with women. She also raps about same-sex attraction quite often, including a quip on Invasion of Privacy about wanting a threesome with Rihanna and Chrissy Teigen. But once again, we ignored that.
If queer people perform a song about queerness, then the song is authentic, point blank. Of course, the song in question was co-written with a score of male songwriters, which made me itchbut that nugget shouldn’t detract from Ora’s experiences as a queer woman. Unfortunately, it did. Queer singer Katie Gavin of Muna tweeted that she’s “calling bullshit” on the song, griping, “I hear the familiar chorus that women’s sexuality is something to be looked at instead of authentically felt.” One Twitter user said the song was “written by men and sung by (mostly) straight women. Problematic for sure,” while another said the song was guilty of “queer-baiting,” or an “experimental game for male attention.”
And consequentially, here we are: Monday morning, Ora took to social media to clear the air. “Girls was written to represent my truth and is an accurate account of a very real and honest experience in my life,” she explained. “I have had romantic relationships with women and men throughout my life and this is my personal journey.”
I hate that we ruined her moment. The singer-songwriter released a Sapphic song in which she literally declares, “I’m 50/50 and I’m never gonna hide it,” and yet we continued to bully her into making a more conspicuous statement. But it’s a repeat offense. Last September, a Huffington Post writer attacked Demi Lovato for the ways in which she talked about her queernessor in his opinion, the ways she didn’t. He lambasted the pop star, saying her “refusal” to talk about her sexuality is “total bullshit,” despite her transparently singing about same-sex experimentation on “Cool For The Summer.” Soon after the song’s release, she appeared on British talk show Alan Carr: Chatty Man and was asked about the song in reference to her own sexuality.
“I am not confirming and I’m definitely not denying… All of my songs are based off of personal experiences,” she said, elaborating, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimentation at all.” But the public was unsated, with news outlets claiming Lovato “came out as bisexual without actually coming out as bisexual.” It wasn’t until the following month when Lovato released her documentary Simply Complicated, in which she explicitly states that she dates men and women, that we accepted the singer as queer. But what message does that send to LGBTQ youth?
In 2018, LGBTQ people are more widely accepted than ever (despite fielding daily discriminatory attacks from the Trump regime). However, we continue to treat queerness and coming out as this monolith that needs to be overcome, defined, and dealt with. Dragging celebrities out of “the closet,” especially when they’re openly performing as queer, implies that being queer is an enormous deal. But it isn’t. Public-facing people, as well as everyday people, should be afforded the freedom to be as queer as they want to be, in any capacity, and we shouldn’t invalidate expressions of such without an outdated “coming out” statement.
Kristen Stewartwho was largely accepted by the LGBTQ community as queerfielded years of speculation, paparazzi photos of her with another woman, and sexualized media stories until she came out last year on SNL. She later said that making a blunt statement felt right for her at the timebut it’s important we give people like Stewart the freedom make that choice when they’re ready. Rita Ora wasn’t given that choice. Portia de Rossi wasn’t given that choice, but rather was outed by an Ally McBeal co-star. Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui was outed via a series of photos on PerezHilton in 2016. Public outing or being dragged out of the closet can be extremely damaging to one’s psyche, and in many extreme cases, has led to suicide.
Of course, it’s important to also have out, brazenly queer women in pop music, like Hayley Kiyoko, who sings of her same-sex attraction with abandon, or Janelle Monae, who recently came out as pansexual with a Sapphic visual album. Celebrities have a certain amount of privilege, money, and influence that cushion them, and I agree that they should use such privilege to empower marginalized people in an effort to normalize queerness. But if sexuality is a spectrum, as we know it to be, then there should also be a spectrum of how we opt to discuss it, and how we allow LGBTQ people to contribute to that conversation, in whatever capacity they’re comfortable with. Queerness is not a singular, universal, uniformed experience, and Ora’s experiences as a queer person are just as valid as those of any out, gold star lesbians.
So, let’s stop asking, “Did Rita Ora Just Come Out As Bisexual?” Rita Ora wasn’t hiding. As we evolve, it’s important to reexamine the way we treat coming out, because times are changing: It’s not 1997 anymore, when Ellen DeGeneres came out on a Time magazine cover, or 2006, when Lance Bass covered People with the infamous words, “I’m gay.” As we continue to learn about queerness and accept LGBTQ people as they are, we must simultaneously adjust the ways in which we have dialogues about such.
My hope is that we’re raising a new generation to believe that being gay, or bisexual, or transgender, or fluid, or non-binary is totally commonplace, rather than something that deserves to be blown out of proportion and vivisected on an international platform. If we stop reacting to queerness with shock, and cease demanding explicit admissions from each other, maybe we can finally start to live as freely and openly as our community has always wished to.
Photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns