This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
When Kelley O’Hara leapt into the stands after winning the World Cup in Paris earlier this month and kissed a woman on international TV, it wasn’t as if she was the first female soccer player to ever kiss another woman. In fact, by the time the U.S. women’s team won the title and embarked on the most exuberant, joyful, and downright gay press tour in sports history, it seemed like half the roster was out and queer and proudly kissing their girlfriends and partners in ways that made Abby Wambach’s groundbreaking 2015 World Cup kiss feel quaint. And yet, the image of O’Hara—the factually gorgeous, simultaneously buoyant and brainy and fierce defender who had probably just received a concussion on the field, but still seemed indefatigable—planting that kiss sent shockwaves through the internet.
Or more accurately, through a very specific corner of the internet—a corner whose denizens have long had their eyes trained on O’Hara, who’ve speculated for years about her closely guarded private life and friendships with other players, who’ve hoped that maybe, just maybe, they were seeing something else in her curated Instagram feed full of large groups and athletic things besides camaraderie. I’m talking about the lesbian truthers.
Far more intense than your ordinary online fandom, the truthers make a vocation of hunting through social media posts and paparazzi photos for any sign of a celebrity’s potential queerness. These are queer stans, LGBTQ detectives with time on their hands, Tumblr logins, eyes for clues that range from plausible to completely insane, and the desperate belief that MORE MUST BE OUT THERE. They’ve been called (by their own members) the lesbian FBI. They—OK, we—are L Chat.
I first discovered the L Chat forum, in all its straight-out-of-1999 message board glory, sometime around 2014 after the premiere of Orange Is the New Black. I had asked Google who from the cast was gay in real life and with a click, I found a bottomless pit of non-answers, a conversation in overdrive on the boards as new truthers frantically scanned old publicity photos and interviews and social media photos of everyone in the cast, looking for boyfriends or girlfriends or suspicious pauses when asked about their private lives at press junkets. It was addictive.
The forum’s attention narrowed on the lead actors, Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon, whose romance that first season (it was 2013, practically the Stone Age of lesbian visibility—gay marriage wasn’t legal, Ellen Page was still in the closet, we lived in a world without Carol) became the most exciting thing to happen in lesbian culture since The L Word premiered. There were threads discussing Schilling, Prepon, and Prepon’s and Schilling’s potential off-screen romance; threads for their characters’ on-screen romance; and hotly contested threads for each of the actors’ potentially hetero-leaning off-screen relationships.
Within each thread were rules about what could and could not be discussed (“Rule 1: Keep it gay … DO NOT make any heteronormative comments. This means no posts which serve to Defend the actors Heterosexuality or to attack any poster who believes, thinks, hears, suggests or hopes that Taylor Schilling is or could be Lesbian/Bi.”). There were pages and pages of posts containing photos of the actors, others with GIFs captured from interviews or red-carpet moments where their hands brushed against another woman’s hands, or their faces lit up at the sight of one another. There were many, many body language experts.
While the color scheme was soft—pink and purple and gray—the tone and language were anything but. Users called each other “het troll” (someone trying to provoke a reaction by referencing straight-seeming behavior) in practically every other post, accusing one another of being too heteronormative or too much of a delusional “shipper” (someone who believes or hopes that two individuals are in a relationship). Straight talk could lead to an immediate ban. Evidence that contradicted or poked holes in the agreed-upon narrative of a star’s queer secrets was dismissed, or attacked. This exchange from 2015 on the “Taylaur” (Taylor + Laura) boards is characteristic:
Post 1: You’re pathetic. Laura is pretty much (if not completely) straight.. so you can hardly ban/blame people for het talk. WHEN SHE IS HET.
Post 2: Report this one too, anon. TIA.
Post 3: YOU are pathetic troll police.
Post 4: you kids are too cute. running to mummy whenever someone says something you can’t deal with. grow up.
One challenge of the Taylaur ship—like all ships, eventually—is that as time wore on, the celebrities became involved in other relationships and moved on with their lives from whatever moment or publicity tour first sparked the gay frenzy. When Laura Prepon was expecting a baby with fiancé Ben Foster (together, they are “Baura”) in 2017, Taylaurs struggled to grapple with how to fold the new information into their cosmology. A report, posted in the “Most Pathetic Shippers (Part 2)” thread, from one L Chat user who braved the shipper thread during that time:
Braved the Taylaur nut house. What the new ‘Baura’ pics mean to them:
• this is a double bearding job
• Laura’s PR team must be reading their forum and planning moves based on what they see there
• the pregnancy is still fake
• they think Laura is depressed and sad over this fake life she’s trying to portray and that she’s trapped
Out in the real world, Schilling has since said she’s an “expansive” human who has had serious relationships with “lots of people,” and “there’s no part of me that can be put under a label.” She added, in the same interview with the Evening Standard, that speculation about her sexuality was “invasive.” Still, threads devoted to her possible queer relationships continue to light up all day, every day.
Some of the relationships that have been rumored on L Chat have turned out to be true. Kristen Stewart and Alicia Cargile dated, as did Michelle Rodriguez and Cara Delevingne, and Cara Delevingne and everyone. There are fandoms like the one surrounding soccer stars Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris (aka “Krashlyn”), which are based on the belief that the figures in question are gay but closeted and are generally supported by evidence—including, in that specific case, dozens of photos of the two of them appearing very friendly. (They announced their engagement in March.)
Others have been less rooted in reality.
Can you remember when you saw Carol, and all of the things you’ve spent time thinking about between that point and now, four years later? Imagine if that whole expanse was taken up by the monomaniacal quest for proof that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara were, actually, secretly married, even though Blanchett has been married to a man for 20 years and Mara has been seriously dating Joaquin Phoenix since at least 2017?
That’s kind of what it’s like in Marchatt, the Blanchett-Mara forum that was spun off from the original L Chat forums in 2016 after a preponderance of Marchett shippers were banned from L Chat boards for being too extreme. There are around 59,000 individual posts in the Marchett universe, and the board is still updated every single day with a new photo or new piece of information about the women’s whereabouts. The shippers there take in that new information and begin trying to incorporate it into their narrative of the Blanchett-Mara love story, which now includes multiple nervous breakdowns, fake romances, and a PR machine that works with the “mainstream media” to convince us all of the women’s heterosexuality until some point in the future, when all will be revealed.
“We’ve had some amazing posts over the years putting together the pieces of this puzzle that Cate’s PR is trying extremely hard to sweep under the carpet,” one Marchett post reads.
The quest for proof can seem voracious and, yes, a little untethered from reality, but perhaps it is unfair to so quickly dismiss the truthers’ religion. While it seems completely ridiculous to believe that two actresses who play lesbians on the big screen are secretly in love, we also know that publicists lie about celebrities, and that there is a long history of closeted Hollywood stars. Ellen Page, for example, has spoken openly about the pressure she was under from Hollywood executives to remain closeted. As she told Net-a-Porter in February: “I was distinctly told, by people in the industry, when I started to become known: ‘People cannot know you’re gay.’ And I was pressured—forced, in many cases—to always wear dresses and heels for events and photo shoots.”
That there exists so recent and clear an example of purposeful Hollywood closeting helps explain, to a certain extent, how these narratives can take hold. We know it’s possible that what we are told about celebrities’ personal lives is not all true, and the distance between image and truth is wide enough to hang one’s hopes on, it turns out, as I comb through pages of infighting and “het talk” looking for some compelling sign that Prepon or Schilling or Blanchett or O’Hara are, in fact, gay. Though I know it’s not logical behavior, I find myself sometimes slipping into belief, and asking myself: Why do I care? And why, after years of being out of the closet and seeing actual queer representation in culture explode, can’t I stop caring?
We often think of diverse representation’s importance in terms of fictional characters: Encountering our lived experience reflected in a TV show or movie sends the message that we are normal, or at least worthy of being seen. But there’s something even more powerful about identifying with real-life queer celebrities. I feel mildly grateful for Piper Chapman as a TV character, but I feel really grateful for Taylor Schilling as a person, even in all her noncommittal fluidity. If someone like her exists—talented, beautiful, successful, and at least somewhat potentially interested in women—perhaps it makes more space for me to exist too.
Despite progress in gay rights in recent years, to grow up queer in most parts of the world is still to grow up feeling out of place, often inferior and insecure about it, and to be more tenuously connected to family, church, community, even sports teams, than straight counterparts. In other words, more isolated, and lonelier, and hungrier for other people like you in the world. As Zan Romanoff wrote last year at BuzzFeed, part of what’s obviously going on with queer celebrity shipping has to do with the unique vulnerability of being gay. “It can be hopeful to believe that a celebrity—a seemingly mythic, larger-than-life creature—can understand your most vulnerable self,” she writes.
As is probably clear by now, however, the desire for queer representation on these boards can be so intense and vitriolic that it sometimes crosses into creepy, perhaps ethically questionable, territory. As both Schilling and Page have noted, speculation about their sexuality feels invasive and detrimental to them, respectively. Mountains of evidence, including zoomed-in photos and GIFs of small gestures played endlessly on loop, can make a fairly convincing argument that an actress may be gay, and may even reveal that fact, whether she wants to acknowledge or reckon with that publicly or not. And while professional journalists generally try to avoid outing anyone, the gossip boards are held to a different, self-imposed standard, one that is often debated and then ignored. If Mara or Blanchett were, in fact, queer, should they be forced to grapple with it because of internet sleuths? What about an up-and-coming actress, perhaps in her teen years, forced to undergo some sort of self-exploration according to the time frame preferred by fans?
I thought about this as the photo of O’Hara circulated on social media following the final World Cup game on July 7, and the truthers began to hunt for identifying information about the woman being kissed. I wondered if she was out to her friends and family and co-workers, as the truthers posted details about her employer and her LinkedIn page. To ignore the realities of the closet and the coming-out process in the pursuit of “proof” or even representation is to choose to ignore queer history, and it’s a question most truthers don’t seem to want to consider. It’s a question I don’t want to consider while watching videos of pretty celebs who really do seem to be flirting with each other. Yet there remains something unnerving—something perhaps deeper than we want to acknowledge—about what we’re doing on the L Chat. We want a world in which everyone is gay and out and happy, and it’s not yet the world we’ve got. I hope that O’Hara’s kiss gets us closer to that reality, but in the meantime, I hope the lesbian FBI thinks carefully about how it’s shaping the one we live in now.