Happy National Coming Out Day! I thought I would mark this special day by writing a post taking a look at the current state of coming out in pop culture media. My knowledge of past and present pop culture is certainly not exhaustive: I’ve watched a lot of TV in my day, but I make no claim to have seen every show. Nevertheless, it seems there has been an overall growing trend in TV shows—characters simply aren’t coming out anymore. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but as a gay man, I feel that the implicit message of “That story’s been done before, coming out stories are so last decade,” all boils down to, “We don’t really care anymore.” Pop culture routinely inundates us with storylines that have been done time and time again: first (heterosexual) love, star-crossed lovers, first heartbreak, young person coming into their paranormal powers, and people readily consume those same scenarios over and over. Are people really so bored with coming out of the closet stories that writers think they aren’t worth writing anymore?
Now, it’s true that I unfairly judge all television coming out stories by comparing them to that of one Jack McPhee from Dawson’s Creek, that legendary WB (remember when that was a network?) series that gave us ’90s teen drama at its most pure and potent: burgeoning adolescent sexuality, parental infidelity and divorce, incarcerated parents, illicit teacher-student liaisons, mental illness, deaths of peers and parents — no stone was left unturned for these kids. Not surprisingly, homosexuality and the turmoils of coming out formed important plotlines for the show. Jack began his tenure as one of the new kids on the block in the second season; ostensibly straight, he even began dating the show’s leading lady. Halfway through Season 2, a two-episode arc dealt with rumors surfacing about his sexual orientation that eventually led to him acknowledging his true sexuality to himself, his family, and his friends.
Like other hot topics on Dawson’s Creek, this wasn’t simply for a Very Special Episode; Jack coming to terms with coming to terms with his sexuality and its intersections with his personal identity spanned the entire rest of the second season, and even much of the third, before he reached a greater place of self-confidence about it in later seasons. Did this whole arc seem overly dramatic and drawn out to viewers? I’m not sure, but what I do know is this: coming out truly can be an extremely tumultuous, painful, and anxiety-ridden point in one’s life, and it is not resolved in two forty-two-minute sessions (that’s excluding commercial breaks).
Jack’s plotlines also show an important truth—coming out is not a one-time deal. Thing like National Coming Out Days or some queer story arcs in media can sometimes seem to buy into or even promulgate an idea that coming out is a “one-and-done” scenario, that once you cross that hurdle you never have to do it again. This simply isn’t true. When initially coming out, it is often one at a time to various friends and family members, leading to multiple coming out events. Even if one’s coming out is seemingly public, Facebook status or YouTube video for example, not every single person in one’s life is necessarily going to see it. This is not to mention the huge and often overlooked fact that we must continue to come out all over again whenever new people enter our lives. In the conclusion to Jack’s initial two-episode coming out story arc, he comes out to his father and his girlfriend at different times and different ways. That’s twice just in one episode! He must also later come out to his potential fraternity brothers in college (even though it turns out that they already knew) and even on the job—coming out to a guardian while a little league soccer coach even led to some parents to withdrawing their children from the team, an unfortunately accurate representation of what can be at stake when coming out.
So what happens now in today’s TV shows? We are introduced to established queer characters. In Teen Wolf, we have our dear friend Danny; everyone just knows and accepts it, and he is easily one of the most popular and well-liked students at his high school. In this regard, Danny is a great, inspirational role model to queer youth, showing that you can be queer and still be well-liked and popular among the student body, and that being queer isn’t a social death sentence. But one can’t help but wonder: what was his coming out like? Was he worried that the institutionally ingrained machismo of the sports world would make him an outcast on the lacrosse team? Are we to believe his best friend, alpha jock douchebag Jackson, was totally accepting from the moment Danny came out? Even if by some odd reason he was, Danny had no way of knowing that, and coming out to him must have been incredibly stressful. Or was there perhaps an awkward, strained period in their friendship after the coming out that was eventually patched up and then the two became closer than ever? Why was his coming out story never considered interesting or important enough to tell? Alas, we’ll never know.
This new model is not without positive aspects. It helps show that not all queer stories are tragic stories and it helps break queer characters away from the conceptualization that the agonizing coming out saga is the one and only definitive narrative of a queer person’s life. By moving beyond the sturm und drang of this period of time in someone’s life, we can show that there is indeed life and joy after the tears and anguish. Without focusing on that particular pathos, writers can instead focus on queer characters’ relationships, hopefully at least some of which will involve a happy ending, and developing other traits of the character, as no one wants a character whose sole purpose is to be the token gay.
However, to not acknowledge coming out at all is wrong. Jeff Davis may like to think he has created a post-homophobic society in Beacon Hills High, but show me where this exists in the real world. Show me the high school sports team where not one of the members has called their gay teammate a slur behind his back. Coming out will always be scary and stressful, especially the first time. Even those of us with the most progressive of friends (I was a theater geek in high school) will face the fear of the what if—you may think you can predict a person’s reaction, but you could be wrong. This is not to mention the fears beyond peer rejection: the fear (and in some cases even certainty) that some segments of society, religious institutions, and parents will reject, condemn, and even actively persecute you.
The real irony here is that pop culture media creators do acknowledge the importance of the coming out experience in a roundabout way: especially in sci-fi/fantasy worlds, characters are coming out all the time—as werewolves, as witches, as human-alien hybrids, as superheroes. These situations mirror exactly the same considerations and consternations that go into coming out as queer: the fear of persecution, and, even more importantly, the fact that hiding a part of oneself, denying who you really are, even if just by omission, is psychologically unhealthy and anxiety-provoking. Why, then, do these same writers seem to struggle so much to create and share stories about people coming out as queer? Why does no one seem to care anymore?
Do writers honestly think a straight majority audience can actually relate more to a werewolf coming out story than a queer coming out story? I’d say they have actually disproven their own point: if a non-werewolf majority audience can identify with a werewolf protagonist’s struggles and empathize with his fears and anxieties about revealing this hidden part of himself, it shows that they can in fact relate to, identify and empathize with people who are not exactly like them, people who may in fact differ in large ways. One would expect at the very least for this to extend as far as sexual orientation. If we live in a world where straight human beings feel they have more in common with a werewolf or extraterrestrial than with a queer human being, things are worse than I thought.