It’s Pride Month, which means we can expect a lot of media condescension, corporate rainbow washing, and a hell of a lot of cishet people trying to make it all about them. We have an early contender in the season of ‘waylaid by hetero jackassery’ thanks to the Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald. Last week, on her Instagram page, actress Rebel Wilson shared an image of herself with her current partner, activewear designer Ramona Agruma. It was a pleasant Pride surprise and the responses were pretty uniformly positive. It was soon revealed that Wilson’s decision to come out in this manner was not entirely her own. The Sydney Morning Herald then published a staggeringly misguided article detailing how angry they were that Wilson had chosen to go public with her partner rather than let them keep the story as a newspaper exclusive.
Columnist Andrew Hornery opened his article by lamenting that ‘in a perfect world, ‘outing’ same-sex celebrity relationships should be a redundant concept’ before declaring that ‘as Rebel Wilson knows, we do not live in a perfect world.’ He then details how the newspaper gave Wilson two days to comment on her new relationship before they published it. When she made the move to take control of the narrative of her own life, Hornery said, ‘big mistake.’ Despite essentially admitting to media blackmail, Hornery claims that Wilson’s ‘choice to ignore our discreet, genuine and honest queries was, in our view, underwhelming.’ To somehow make matters even worse, he then claims that ‘sexual orientation is no longer something to be hidden, even in Hollywood’ and that Wilson wouldn’t ‘have experienced the sort of discrimination […] that sadly still affects so many gay, lesbian, and non-hetero people.’ Dude.
I’ve just read this @smh piece 3 times to make sure that I wasn’t misreading. The publication messaged Rebel Wilson saying they would out her in 2 days - and is now complaining that she chose to announce her relationship with a woman herself. Quite astonishing. pic.twitter.com/qiPZkYFmka— Megha Mohan (@meghamohan) June 11, 2022
The whole article is astoundingly cruel and queerphobic, using the same tactics of manipulation to take control of a woman’s life that the media has used for decades. It never seemed to enter the Sydney Morning Herald or Andrew Hornery’s minds that perhaps Wilson can do whatever the hell she wants with her own life. There is nothing respectful about pushing someone out of the closet, nor is there any sort of journalistic integrity in doing so, especially when you then whine like a toddler when your target doesn’t play by your bullsh*t rules. Maybe Wilson and her partner had good reasons for wanting to do things in their own time. The insistence that Hollywood is now A-OK with openly queer celebrities would be laughable if it weren’t so painfully false. We’re currently living through a horrific rise in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and political power, particularly for trans and non-binary people, and you have the nerve to think that outing a woman is doing her a personal and professional favor?!
Things got worse when the newspaper’s editor, Bevan Shields, issued an ‘explanation’ for the piece that doubled down on its callousness while claiming that what they did was just journalism, the same sort of ‘questioning’ they would have done had Wilson been dating a man. That didn’t go down well, and on Monday morning, the piece was retracted. Hornery then issued an apology that isn’t really an apology because he doesn’t seem to understand why Wilson or any other queer person would feel unsafe thanks to his actions.
Wilson isn’t the only person to have experienced this kind of blackmail. Olympian Tom Daley was forced to come out as gay before a British newspaper could get it on their front pages. Perez Hilton made a game out of outing celebrities like Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris. Historically, outing has often been used as a tool of humiliation, such as when truly awful trash-person Laura Ingraham secretly tape-recorded a meeting of a Dartmouth College gay campus group and then published a transcript along with attendees’ names as part of an editorial denouncing the group as ‘cheerleaders for latent campus sodomites.’
A lot of the pressure around outing also comes from those within the LGBTQ+ community. It was gay writers like Michael Musto who talked about Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell being gay long before both women came out publicly. Activists would out gay conservative politicians who voted for homophobic policies, including Jim McGreevey, Mark Hatfield, and Larry Craig. Over the past few years, there’s been a rise of online hunger for outing, most notably those who create or engage with LGBTQ+ art and are not viewed as being part of that community. YA author Becky Albertalli was forced to come out as bisexual after facing online harassment from people who claimed that she had no business writing and profiting from queer stories as a seemingly cishet woman.
Former OutWeek editor Gabriel Rotello called outing ‘equalizing’ while Richard Mohr, author of Gay Ideas: Outing and Other Controversies, declared it to be ‘both permissible and an expected consequence of living morally.’ This makes sense in the context of political equality. If your local congressman is voting against gay marriage but is hitting up male sex workers for nightly kicks then hell yes you get to call out that rank hypocrisy. The pleas for privacy don’t mean much when the person involved is working and profiting from their community’s continued discrimination. But there is still serious pushback to this idea. As writer Roger Rosenblatt noted in a 1993 piece for the New York Times Magazine, ‘The practice of ‘outing’ homosexuals implies contradictorily that homosexuals have a right to private choice but not to private lives.’ To be queer is still to face the unfair assumption that your life is one to be consumed by the public. This is especially dangerous for trans people who are outed at any point in their transition process.
In their book Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence, Warren Johannson and William A. Percy created a series of rules for ‘fair outing’: ‘Hypocrites only, and only when they actively oppose gay rights and interests; Outing passive accomplices who help run homophobic institutions; Prominent individuals whose outing would shatter stereotypes and compel the public to reconsider its attitude on homosexuality; Only the dead.’ That third rule feels tricky to me. A prominent celebrity coming out can change a lot of minds but that’s still something they should do on their own terms. Besides, money and fame don’t always protect you from the well-funded and always-deafening cries of bigotry. Consider how astonishingly transphobic Britain is right now. Maybe you could claim that outing a trans celebrity could help to change minds but the reality is that they’d probably end up being harassed and threatened and turned into think-piece bait by the TERF establishment.
What did the Sydney Morning Herald feel that they had to gain by outing Rebel Wilson? Is she secretly pumping money into an anti-LGBTQ+ lobbyist? Nope. Was she endorsing a homophobic politician? No. She’s just a famous woman who fell in love with another woman and that was seen as content. That’s all this is to that newspaper. Well, maybe not all. Wilson famously won a large sum of money after taking on a prominent Australian media group in a libel case. Is this outing an act of revenge for her daring to stand up for herself? Is it yet another reminder that, even as these papers print rainbow flags and claim they’re super cool with gay people, the existence of queerness is something to shame for profit?
People can, will, and should come out in their own time. It is not a public show that people get to demand from others. We’ve made a lot of progress over the years, but let’s not pretend that we live in a queer utopia right now, one where there are zero negative consequences for forcing someone out of the closet against their will. You’re not a rallying crusader for justice and equality by making a celebrity do your bidding: you’re just the same kind of homophobic bully that did this crap 30 years ago.