Every queer person knows this to be true: Coming out is a brave, life-changing, and in many cases, a terrifying experience. Now, imagine that on a world stage. Earlier this week, a HuffPost writer attacked Demi Lovato, accusing the pop star of refusing to talk about her sexuality publically. Soon after, Lovato clapped back in a string of Tweets, calling the writer “Expectant and rude,” adding, “Just because I’m refuse to label myself for the sake of a headline doesn’t mean I’m not going to stand up for what I believe in But I don’t owe anybody anything.” Naturally, the article engendered a dialogue on Lovato’s history with disclosing details on her dating life, as well as a broader conversation on outing.
Here’s where the HuffPost writer took issue with Lovato: In a recent interview with PrideSource.com, Chris Azzopardi prompted Lovato, “I want to give you the opportunity to speak on [your sexuality] as directly as you’d like,” to which she replied, “Thank you for the opportunity, but I think I’m gonna pass.” When pushed further, Demi said, “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 isUnfortunately, we live in a world where everyone is trying to get that soundbite and I am purposefully not giving the soundbite.”
Demi’s sexuality, like mine and yours, is not a headline; it’s a deeply personal part of her, and it’s hers to keep private or publicize. She’s justified in her skepticism; public outing still happens. As recent as November of 2016, Perez Hilton leaked personal photos of Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui kissing a girl. The leak led to Jauregui penning an article a few days later where she came out as bisexual – it was the first time the singer spoke publically on her sexuality, and unfortunately, her hand was forced. Kristen Stewart, Portia de Rossi and many other celebrities have fallen victim to similar speculation, abuse, or dragging out of the closet.
Outing a person before they are ready can be extremely harmful to their mental health, even deadly. Many cases have been reported of an outed person committing suicide, like Tyler Clementi, the college student whose college roommate secretly recorded his sexual encounter with another man and published it online; or “Dr. V,” a transgender inventor who killed herself after a writer outed her to the main investor of her company. Outing is selfish, shows a complete lack of empathy, and is outright malicious. Coming out should be a moment of liberation and self-acceptance, not someone else’s demand.
As a femme-presenting queer woman, I am constantly faced with coming out. I’ve been lucky to have pleasant experiences with close friends and family. With that being said, I am consistently inundated with requests – sometimes demands – for a declaration on my sexuality. One day it’s an Uber driver asking if I’m meeting up with my boyfriend, then it’s a pharmacist wondering how I can be sure I’m not pregnant, or it’s a friend’s quizzical kid, puzzled by my lack of interest in marrying a man. The idea of having to disclose my sexual preference to complete strangers, on somewhat of a daily basis, is aggrieving and exhausting. Why do people feel I owe them complete, transparent honesty on my sexual orientation, 100 percent of the time? Plus, I never know who I’m talking to; Depending on the religious beliefs or political associations of the person, coming out can be a radical act, even dangerous. LGBTQ people are being murdered in Iraq for “looking gay.” Earlier this year, gay men were rounded up, beaten and tortured in Chechnya. Last year, the CDC reported that nearly 1/3rd of LGB teenagers have attempted suicide, while 43% have considered it – and queer student are more likely to be victims of domestic violence or rape than straight students.
Demi Lovato has, time and time again, openly advocated for LGBTQ people, including penning a letter for Billboard’s Pride Month earlier this year. She’s also a luminary for mental health, having recently executive produced a documentary on mental illness (Beyond Silence), and even met with legislators on Capitol Hill to discuss comprehensive health reform in 2015. While many pop stars have been accused of reaping the benefits of being pro-LGBTQ without actually taking steps to advocate change, Lovato is not that person.
In 2015, the ex-Disney star appeared on Alan Carr: Chatty Man to promote her single “Cool For The Summer.” With lyrics like, “Got a taste for the cherry, I just need to take a bite” and “Don’t be scared ‘cause I’m you’re body type,” the British TV host probed her on the song being about lesbianism. Lovato responded, “I am not confirming and I’m definitely not denying… All of my songs are based off of personal experiences.” She furthered, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimentation at all.”The interview became an international news story, with many outlets claiming the singer “came out as bisexual without actually coming out as bisexual.” I disagree.
As a society, we demand people label themselves: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – some people identify as nonbinary or as fluid. Because Demi didn’t explicitly say the words “I am bisexual,” we refused to accept the words she did offer. I don’t know why we painstakingly and repeatedly go through this: just because a public figure doesn’t give a “coming out interview” doesn’t mean they’re not out. It’s been more than 20 years since Ellen DeGeneres’ formal coming out interview on Oprah and her Time cover that featured the now-infamous words, “Yep, I’m gay.” Culturally, we should be past this lascivious obsession. In 2017, the idea of having to lodge a rainbow flag in the Earth like a man on the moon feels archaic. Plus, Lovato isn’t hiding.
Earlier this month, BuzzFeed posted an article with sneaky fan photos of Lovato holding hands with a woman at Disneyland. The woman, DJ Lauren Abedini, is an out queer woman. Lovato was also photographed grazing the woman’s lower back. That’s not hiding; a Disney star holding hands with an (alleged) girlfriend at Disney is the celebrity equivalent of bringing your first girlfriend home for Thanksgiving.
Do celebrities have to speak openly on their sexuality? Do they owe that to the public? Do they owe struggling LGBTQ teens that? Part of me wants to say ‘yes’ – ideally, people would use their privilege and platform to usher in change. But celebrities are people, and we too often forget that. We dissociate their public personas with their humanity. We would never demand such an admission from a complete stranger on the street – and when it comes down to it, that’s what public figures are to us – strangers. We will never have the full story on any public figure’s circumstances, so it’s unfair to draw conclusions on how they “should” act. Nobody owes anyone an explanation on their sexuality, and Lovato should be afforded the autonomy to talk about her sexuality in whatever way she feels comfortable with – without qualifications or backlash.
Sexuality doesn’t define a person. Lovato might be bisexual, pansexual, or maybe she doesn’t identify. But she’s also a multiplatinum pop star, an activist, a producer, an actress, an advocate for mental health, and a woman who deserves our respect.