Relationships

Coming Out as a Business Plan

How cynical should we feel when queer celebrities strategically time announcements about their sexuality to boost their own careers?

Tessa Thompson and Janelle Monáe
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

Hearts and Stars is Slate’s pop-up blog about celebrity relationships.

When Janelle Monáe came out as queer and pansexual in April, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. For one thing, there was her careerlong love affair with suspenders, an extremely homosexual accessory. And Monáe dropped a few unambiguous hints in the lead-up to her bombshell: the pink vulva-inspired pants in one music video, the bisexual canoodling in another, the stoking of rumors of a romance with Tessa Thompson, whom she cast as her lover in the “emotion picture” accompaniment to her most recent album, Dirty Computer.

As a gay person who lives to obsess over queer celebrity relationships, I should have been thrilled by Monáe’s revelation. But the timing and tenor of her announcement dulled any excitement I might have otherwise felt. By dropping her coming-out into a Rolling Stone cover-story profile published the day before the Dirty Computer release, after two months of stoking speculation through the album’s videos, Monáe seemed to cheapen and commodify her queer identity. She used her pansexuality—which is a complex site of persecution for many—to boost the buzz around her album, exploiting a marginalized identity to fit into a strategic rollout for a commercial product.

When I shared this feeling with a colleague, she pushed me to take a more generous stance. Monáe was just being smart, she said, playing the music and media industry’s games by their own rules. In other words, as a black queer woman in a business—and society—that imposes social strictures and institutional disadvantages on all three of those identity groups, Monáe has had to apply business strategies to her personal life in order to succeed.

Here’s another way to put that theory: There can be no ethical coming-out under capitalism. When artists get famous enough that their love lives become news, their sexualities will automatically fall within the domain of their personal business plans. So however they come out, the moment will almost always be shaped to maximize profit and minimize risk.

From both an art and publicity perspective, it makes sense to tie a public declaration of queer sexuality to a new piece of work. Art is the artist’s way of articulating her own creative worldview; famous artworks often include semiautobiographical hints at the artist’s sexuality, and journalists often ask about that. If Monáe wanted to express elements of her pansexuality in her music—and Dirty Computer is thick with it—she had to prepare for the inevitable questions that would follow. So did Frank Ocean, who in 2012 published a piece on his website detailing a previous relationship with a man after a journalist who’d heard a preview of Ocean’s upcoming album made public the fact that some of the tracks featured a male love interest. Ocean’s letter, which came out about a week before Channel Orange did, ended up serving dual purposes as an explanation and promotion of his work.

It’s a lot to ask of artists to actively divorce their coming-out from their own publicity cycle. But doing so is not impossible. Ellen Page and Jodie Foster both managed to do it in very different ways. Page was making a speech at a Human Rights Campaign conference in 2014 when she laid it out: “I’m here today because I am gay … I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission.” She had a movie coming out three months later, X-Men: Days of Future Past, but she made no mention of it, and it seemed entirely incidental to her speech, which was a rousing, heartfelt call for equality befitting of the venue. Still, the speech probably had an impact on her career: For one thing, it positioned her as a staunch advocate for LGBTQ rights, paving the way, for instance, for a hosting gig on a Vice travel show that explored LGBTQ activism and culture around the world. By contrast, Foster seemed to vehemently reject the mantle of a queer activist or role model when she came out, kind of, in her 2013 Golden Globes acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award. Foster’s was a confusing address that chastised the public for its interest in her sexuality and lamented the loss of the privacy stars had in “those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family and co-workers and then gradually and proudly to everyone who knew her … everyone she actually met.”

But integral to the “quaint” days Foster fondly remembers was an ever-present atmosphere of punitive homophobia, the kind that would doom the acting career of a “fragile young girl” who came out before she ever got old enough (that is, into her preteens) to be considered a sex symbol. Queer celebrities didn’t keep their love lives private back then because the absence of the internet made it easier for them to live like normal people—they went to great, painful lengths to hide their identities, desires, and loves, because to let them leak would be socially and financially ruinous. If growing acceptance of gay celebrities and gains in LGBTQ rights has made the public more eager for queer stars to come out, that’s something to be gratefully accepted, if not celebrated, and certainly not bemoaned.

Besides that, public interest in a person’s sexuality isn’t unique to queer celebrities, and neither is the cynical deployment of that sexuality as a moneymaking gambit. Entire gossip magazines have lived and died by the romances of straight famous people, many of whom appear to engineer their own dating lives around publicity imperatives. Every time a celebrity announces she’s dating her co-star just before their new movie drops or lets the press know that a photo of the two cuddling was an unstaged, off-camera moment, it’s hard not to interpret it as just another maneuver to get eyeballs on the screen.

It’s a little different with queer celebrities, though, because there’s a lot more riding on public explorations of private relationships, especially when celebrities first come out. It may not be fair, but in a society that still constrains LGBTQ lives in its laws and social norms, queer stars have an outsize impact on the visibility, perception, and treatment of the rest of us. So when a coming-out celebrity treats his queer sexuality as a rationalization for sexual abuse, as Kevin Spacey did, or as an embarrassment, as Angels in America star Lee Pace once did, it colors the whole community with shame.

Earlier this year, a few months after snapping at a reporter that a question about his sexuality was “intrusive,” Pace drew a connection between the homophobia he’s experienced—both as a child in Texas and as a budding actor in Hollywood—and his reluctance to speak openly about being queer. “When you grow up queer, you get tough. And perceptive. And you learn how to field it,” he told the New York Times. “When someone comes at you that you don’t know, interested in that area of your life, it’s not always a good thing.”

Pace’s explanation might ring true for Monáe, who told Rolling Stone of Dirty Computer, “A lot of this album is a reaction to the sting of what it means to hear people in my family say, ‘All gay people are going to hell.’ ” Like Pace, Monáe has spent years batting away questions about her sexuality. “The lesbian community has tried to claim me, but I only date androids,” she famously said in 2010, needlessly tying her demurral to a dig at a sizable segment of her fan base. She trotted out the same coy nonanswer as recently as 2016 while promoting, of all things, the queer-affirming Best Picture Oscar–winner Moonlight. It makes sense that a queer person who’s endured intimate, vehement homophobia would balk at direct questions about her sexuality. But if I’m being honest, I probably would have celebrated Monáe’s eventual coming-out more readily if she hadn’t spent years implying that lesbians were crazy for clocking her as queer.

That’s not to say my personal hang-ups should determine the appropriate circumstances for a queer celebrity coming-out, or that Monáe hasn’t done a lot of good by finally opening up about her queerness. If she’s sold more albums and booked more gigs because of the buzz her well-timed announcement created, that doesn’t undercut the bravery it took, or how subversive queerness can still be in mainstream music. The more celebrity coming-outs I’ve picked apart, the clearer it seems that LGBTQ celebrities are forced to choose between the best of a few imperfect options. After Kristen Stewart officially came out, she said that she had previously liked to keep the details of her love life private precisely because it turned her sexuality “into a commodity … peddled around the world.” For her, keeping quiet about her queerness meant keeping it insulated from a gossip industry that places a price on every glimpse into a famous person’s romance, even as it also kept her from being publicly recognized for who she truly is.

Eventually, Stewart decided to approach coming out as “an opportunity to surrender a bit of what was mine, to make even one other person feel good about themselves.” Monáe did the same thing when she called herself queer and pansexual in Rolling Stone this spring. She recognized that her relationships would be commodified, whether or not she spoke publicly about them; by wrapping her coming-out into her album push, she made sure she was the one reaping the benefits. In the realm of celebrity, sexuality is always currency. The only thing that changes is who’s getting paid.