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Why Speculating on Someone's Sexual Identity is Dangerous

Man sitting on bed in the dark with rainbow light hitting side of face

What do Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey, and The Chase legend Anne Hegerty have in common? Well, aside from being cultural icons, they have each found themselves, and their sexualities, subject of speculation. Despite identifying as straight, they have had their appearances analysed, their behaviour dissected, and their relationships put under the microscope, all in search of some hidden or repressed queerness.

Last week, Abbott Elementary’s Tyler James Williams addressed rumours about his own sexuality, and spoke out against speculation:

“Usually I wouldn’t address stuff like this but I feel like it as a conversation is bigger than me. I’m not gay; but I think the culture of trying to 'find' some kind of hidden trait or behavior that a closeted person 'let slip' is very dangerous”

Questioning celebrities' sexual identities may seem relatively innocent, and is not always done with bad intentions. Queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick recognises many LGBTQ+ people seek out queerness within culture in order to find representation, “to make the tacit things explicit; to smuggle queer representation in where it must be smuggled”. For others, engaging with viral memes or jokes, speculating with friends, or 'shipping' within fandoms are just fun pastimes that have little social impact.

But Williams recognises its potential danger - not just for those at the heart of the rumours, but for other queer people and society more widely. As we try and foster an inclusive culture, one that recognises and champions diversity, it's necessary we change how we talk or theorise about sexuality. If not, we risk the following things:

You could out someone

When Netflix's Heartstopper hit our screens, many celebrated its heartwarming love story and praised the series for its positive representation. Others criticised its casting and accused 18-year-old Kit Connor, who plays bisexual student Nick Nelson, of 'queerbaiting' audiences. He had previously refused to label his sexuality, telling the Reign with Josh Smith podcast:

"I just feel like I’m perfectly confident and comfortable in my sexuality, but I’m not too big on labels and things like that. I’m not massive about that. And I don’t feel like I need to label myself, especially not publicly".

When he was spotted holding hands with an actress, he was hounded by viewers who demanded an answer. In turn, Connor felt forced to come out as bisexual.

Understanding your sexuality and choosing when, and how, to come out is an intensely personal experience, one that should be done at your own pace. Speculation puts pressure on the individual, forcing them to label themselves before they're ready, thus stripping away their agency. Being outed can be an incredibly traumatising experience for LGBTQ+ people, often creating feelings of shame, depression, and anxiety. It can also leave them vulnerable to homophobia, abuse and injustice. For celebrities who are forcibly outed, this happens on a global scale.

You help enforce the gender binary

In other words, you maintain gender stereotypes. Many of those who face speculation over their sexual identity do so because they don't conform to our stereotypical ideas of 'straightness'. For example, we often envision straight men as overtly masculine, with deep voices, and a love of beer and football. Straight men don't wear make-up, or take fashion risks - like Harry Styles, who has faced much speculation, most of which surrounds his wardrobe choices.

While we have made definite progress in how we think about gender and sexuality - with research conducted by OnePoll, on behalf of Tinder, recognising identity as increasingly fluid - this black-and-white thinking remains. In reality, there is no way of knowing someone's sexuality through their appearance, behaviour or mannerisms. When we base our ideas of sexuality on the physical embodiment of traits associated with queerness, we're actually just maintaining these gender stereotypes. As Tyler James Williams recognises, it "reinforces an archetype many straight men have to live under that is often times unrealistic, less free, and limits individual expression [...] Being straight doesn't look one way. Being gay doesn't look one way".

Tyler James Williams' Instagram Statement / @willtylerjames

You could stop someone from coming out

When you speculate and laugh about celebrities' sexuality, think about what message this sends your queer friends. Kevin Wong, Vice President of Communications for The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ youth suicide intervention organization, encourages people to rethink their speculation of celebrities:

“If you were thinking about coming out and you see something occurring on a world stage where people are being mean-spirited about somebody else’s potential sexual orientation or speculating about somebody’s gender identity, you’re going to internalize that. That will make you feel ashamed. That will ascribe stigma to how you feel about yourself and your identities.”

You should treat celebrities with the same respect you treat your peers, as your allyship should not be contained to those closest to you.

Ultimately, its none of your business

Our culture's obsession with celebrities has led to the formation of parasocial relationships and a sense of entitlement, where we feel we deserve to know everything because they exist on a global stage. Not only is this mindset frightening, but it also lacks all sense of humanity.

It's important to recognise celebrities as real people, with as much complexity as the rest of us. No matter your feelings towards them, nor their position in society, they’re deserving of privacy, of the opportunity to experiment or question or express themselves however they so choose. It can be easy to sit at home and speculate on the intricacies of their identity and self-expression, but it can have very real and very serious effects. Maybe next time you'll think twice before retweeting that Tweet or judging that celebrity - and you should.


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