Sexualized Saturdays: Does Anyone Care About Coming Out Anymore?

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.

Jack McPhee Dawson's Creek

If you don’t know how I feel about the trailblazing Jack McPhee, you have probably not read any of my other posts.

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).

After coming out to his father, Jack had to come out again to his then-girlfriend, Joey.

After coming out to his father, Jack had to come out again to his then-girlfriend, Joey.

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.

Danny and Jackson Teen Wolf lacrosse team

If I was scared to come out as a theatre geek, I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to come out as an athlete.

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.

Scott McCall joins the ranks of Clark Kent, Buffy Summers, the Charmed Ones, and about half the cast of Roswell, who are all hiding something from their friends or family.

Scott McCall joins the ranks of Clark Kent, Buffy Summers, the Charmed Ones, and about half the cast of Roswell, who are all hiding something from their friends or family.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Does Anyone Care About Coming Out Anymore?

  1. Happy National Coming Out Day! I’d love to leave a super long comment, if you don’t mind.

    I just started watching the Canadian show Saving Hope this past year, which has just started season 3, and they too have a gay character who is just an established-as-gay character from the start, no coming out needing to be done. I also started watching The Fosters for the first time in the past year, and that show too has two established as lesbians moms. The Fosters is a somewhat interesting example, however, with what they’re doing with the youngest member of that family – Jude, who was 12-and-turned-13 in season 1 and who in the pilot was abused by his foster-father for trying on the man’s ex-wife’s dress, who in season 1 chose to paint his fingernails and who asked one of his moms how she first knew she was gay… they seem to be handling Jude’s “coming out” storyline with care and grace. Jude’s actually experiencing some homophobia from his friend Connor’s dad too, I’d just like to mention.

    “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.” This should’ve been handled a little better on a show like Orphan Black where everyone in Cosima’s life is new, or even in trans character Tony’s life.

    This is something I’ve seen fans criticize about Glee – clearly, Santana and/or Blaine and maybe in some contexts Kurt should be “passing” as straight far too often in their new New York lives, and need to come out to people on a regular basis. Lol. Or need to choose to stay closeted, I suppose.

    Like I already explained in my comment on your “Single Queer Characters Are Still Queer” post, Josh on The Originals is a queer character on a relatively new – Fall 2013 – show. Interestingly, he’s not Danny from Teen Wolf where everyone already knows him and knows that he’s gay – he’s a character who is essentially meeting everyone in the show for the first time, yet no one cares about his sexual orientation, so he hasn’t really had to come out. I could easily see a girl being interested in him, and him having to come out as a way of turning down her advances, but as it is now, he doesn’t really have many scenes with single girls. Some people on the show ship Davina/Josh, forgetting he came out to her as gay (and forgetting as viewers that the writers revealed to us that he was gay too in the same scene). He came out in a very subtle way in his first real conversation with her on the show. He is a bit too old for her anyway, as in season 1 she’s 16 and he’s 20 – the age of consent in Louisiana where the show takes place (New Orleans) is 17. Lol. But anyway. It’s certainly not a coming out “storyline”. He doesn’t have to struggle with the fact that he’s closeted, or deal with negative reactions. The Originals seems to basically fit this trend you have pointed out of shows being tired of doing Coming Out storylines. Instead, they want to pretend the world is 100% not homophobic, that being gay doesn’t matter anymore, that coming out is truly no big deal.

    However, this article from earlier this year (April 2014) seems very relevant to this discussion:
    It’s about Shameless US and Mickey’s huge coming out storyline. This guy is definitely still struggling with being gay and with reactions from people like his father on a current show. I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’ve seen a lot about it on tumblr and I plan to watch it soon.

    Also, I know Sirens this year featured a coming out of an asexual woman, although I did not see the show. The show was from the point of view of the main character men who were not asexual, but I mean yay for ace representation of any kind! 😛 I have not seen the show and again I don’t know how much of a “coming out story” it really was, but here’s a short, simple, excited reaction from one fan:
    Here are two other people’s analysis of what happened:
    But the important thing to note is that Voodoo, the asexual character in question, has been in 9 of the 10 episodes of the 2014 series. She is a main character!! And she had to deal with what a lot of asexual people have to deal with when she first came out. So I think this is a win in terms of a coming out storyline in 2014 on TV. Even though I gave the show a chance when the pilot first aired, before I knew there’d be an asexual character, and decided it wasn’t for me, and therefore don’t ever really plan to watch the series, I’m happy Voodoo exists. I’m happy this show is doing this. I’m asexual and this is important to me.

    Chasing Life, another brand new show this year, which like Sirens only has had 10 episode so far, had Brenna come out as bisexual. (Of course they’re afraid of using the ‘b’ word but she said she isn’t straight, isn’t into labels, and has been attracted to both guys and girls.) She explicitly had to explain this to her sister April & to sister’s best friend, another main character Beth. April is the “main star” of the show but Brenna is also a star who appears in the opening credits and she gets a lot of screentime. Her mother, who was unaware of her non-straight status, walked in on her kissing her girlfriend with a lot of surprise. Both of Brenna’s immediate family members, April and Helen, are completely accepting of Brenna’s sexuality, yet they are surprised to learn she’s not straight, which I think is a realistic coming out story for some people.

    And I do watch Switched at Birth, which this year chose to feature a high school closeted gay boy outed against his will by others breaking into his laptop. Deaf minor character Matthew catfished and then physcially assaulted Emmett, the main-character straight guy he – BIG REVEAL – had a crush on. Matthew is still closeted for most of the world as far as we can tell, and I think there may only be ONE Matthew fanfiction story in existence: (but it’s a great oneshot!). His story may or may not be completely over on Switched at Birth, which is a show with only straight main characters, but where they are attempting to include many gay minor characters. I think if you’re going to go with a show where all the main characters are straight, then Switched at Birth is making a really good attempt at fighting heteronormativity nonetheless.
    This is a detailed analysis and at times relatively harsh criticism of what happened with the Matthew storyline on the show in June: from the POV of someone trying to combat the real life problems of bullying. In case anyone is curious. It explains the storyline in much more depth than I did here.

    Parenthood on NBC had a coming out story this year too. The season 5 finale in May 2014 and the season 6 premiere this past month (at the end of September 2014) included the character of Haddie revealing she was dating a girl, Lauren, after having previously dated two boys in the first 3 seasons of the show and then being away at college/no longer really on the show for most of seasons 4 and 5. She didn’t make it too clear if she now considered herself a lesbian or if she is bisexual, she didn’t label herself, but she did definitely have a coming out scene to her mother: I recommend you watch it. It’s a short scene. FYI, earlier in the episode, Haddie’s younger brother Max, who has Apserger’s and didn’t react to the situation at the time, had walked in on Haddie kissing Lauren and Haddie & Lauren had quickly parted and pretended to just be sitting on Haddie’s bed talking, for part of the context of this conversation. And yes, this was in 2014. Parenthood also deals with Adam figuring out that Haddie’s friend is more than just a friend, and being accepting, and also cousins Amber and Haddie discuss both Haddie’s previous experience having a sexual relationship with a guy and her current relationship with a girl in the season 6 premiere.

    This past year also dealt with Sara Lance on Arrow coming out to her dad, and with Oliver discovering her bisexuality. In a February 2014 episode, 2×13 “Heir to the Demon”, we first saw Oliver witness her kissing her ex-girlfriend Nyssa, but then later in the season Oliver was completely fine with having sex with Sara, and even by the end of 2×13 Oliver & Sara were kissing. In the same episode we also saw her surprise her dad, Quentin, with the news that she had been in a romantic relationship with Nyssa and that Nyssa was a woman who was in love with Sara and was trying to hurt Sara and that’s why Nyssa had kidnapped Sara’s mother aka Quentin’s ex-wife, whom he still clearly loves. We saw a second scene later in the episode where this conversation took place:

    Quentin: Same old Sara.

    Sara: Well, not exactly the same. I loved her, Dad. [pause.] Are you upset?

    Quentin: Honestly, Sara, to think what you’ve been through these past six years? The pain, the loneliness I’m just happy to hear you had someone that cared for you.

    One of the themes I’ve been seeing in many of these 2014 coming out stories is that shows want to portray non-homophobic characters. Everyone is accepting. The guy on Sirens who wanted to sleep with Voodoo is okay with her being asexual and that meaning they can’t have sex. Brenna on Chasing Life & Haddie on Parenthood each coming out to her own family, Josh on The Originals coming out to his friend Davina – everyone reacts like it’s no big deal. Oliver doesn’t mind that his girlfriend might also be attracted to women. Quentin may be a cop who wasn’t expecting his daughter to be bi, but he’s definitely got an accepting reaction. Even on the crazy Switched at Birth storyline, where the straight guy (Emmett) who had been physically assaulted, bullied, and catfished by a guy he had always thought was his friend, Matthew… Emmett ended up finding out Matthew was gay and was “in love” with Emmett in the same moment, and still Emmett was understanding. Emmett doesn’t react with negative homophobic reactions. We’ve seen Emmett (who is Deaf & only communicates via American Sign Language) react more bigoted toward Deaf people who choose to get Cochlear implants than he did toward his gay friend. Emmett displayed no homophobia in the slightest.

    Shameless US seems to be the one exception to the rule, where they are attempting to show that in some cultures and some places homophobia is still alive and thriving. I guess The Fosters hasn’t completely forgotten it either, though, with both Stef’s father AND Jude’s storylines reminding people that homophobia can exist at times, although overall the show is wildly accepting, and people on The Fosters who maybe should be more “uncomfortable” about two moms raising children like a random doctor in an episode, perhaps? As both moms have needed to be hospitalized on two different occasions… Or maybe Mariana & Jesus’s unfit-to-be-a-parent birth mother, Ana, could be too religious to accept that her kids were not only taken away from her but on top of that are being raised by lesbians and not be 100% cool with it the way she is? It’d be nice if more homophobia was addressed in various shows. If it was shown that even in this current day and age, coming out is not easy and doesn’t always go over 100% perfectly.

    Oh!! I forgot about Nashville. ABC’s Nashville is doing some wonderful things with Will Lexington’s very long and drawn out coming out storyline, and the culture of extreme homophobia in the country music industry. There is way too much going on in his storyline to explain here but I would say that show is trying to take an unusual approach to the situation with a ton of internalized homophobia at play in addition to a ton of concern about the future of his career and the fear that if he is a gay country artist, no one will want to buy his music anymore.

  2. If other people enjoy them that doesn’t bother me at all, but personally… No, I don’t really care about coming out stories. I would be thrilled to watch or read one that had other elements I could relate to and was overall a good story with compelling characters and meaningful consequences, but in general, “coming out story” is off-putting to me in the same way that “first love” is off-putting. It sounds like a bunch of maudlin emotionalism and trite storytelling. My coming out was/is significant, of course, but an extremely small part of my overall LIFE, and I care more about stories that happen after the beginning of something. I also care more about seeing well-rounded bi characters (just speaking for my own group) than characters who are, as usual, reduced to their bisexuality.

    I get what you’re saying about how supernatural comings-out are weirdly common but human ones aren’t, though. I think what I’d really like to see, and what’s most realistic for me, is characters who are out, but do continue to have to come out to new people as time goes on, or who perhaps have their coming-out stories told in flashback episodes and such.

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