Chapter 9: Attention

Chapter 8: Biology.

Long-term, it’s true you don’t just come out once – but in the weeks after I first nodded when asked if I was gay, I didn’t need to mention it again. Charlotte, Islay and Rachel grilled me on it eating lunch outside, Matthew Stockwell enthusiastically informed my French class and eleven-year-olds I didn’t know, but who knew me by name, approached at morning break. I was as talked-about as only something unmentionable can be, and in hindsight it amazes me sexual assault could be so totally hushed up at the same school.

If I still doubted mine was part of a culture of harassment, straight boys’ reactions to discovering a gay classmate would convince me. The perfunctory ‘backs against the wall’ routine was of course trotted out, but many seemed truly to feel threatened by me, from the football fan who begged me not to ‘do anything’ while we were alone (his friends had shut us in a room together) to others’ complaints about sharing a changing room with me.

On one particular coach ride, Michael Cosgrove refused point blank to be sat next to me, crying to the trainee teacher in charge that I was gay, even admitted to it, and as such would feel his leg during the journey. Although he’d covered me previously in bruises and bottled water, I don’t think he was just bullying me: making a scene in front of the whole year which must have lasted ten to fifteen minutes, and despite being much more imposing than I was physically, he seemed genuinely scared and upset.

These boys assumed I must be into them, and took it for granted that if you found someone attractive, you assaulted them. They never used that word for what they worried I might do, since presumably it would have applied just as much to what they did to girls. Certainly I ogled, creeped and ignored boundaries, but no more than they ever did: to most of us, this was what fancying someone meant. Whereas being groped had influenced my thinking, they never linked my behaviour (feared or real) to theirs.

The boys I liked found out I liked them through the grapevine, and because at that age, liking someone was a thing to be announced. (It didn’t occur to me it would be different if you liked your own gender.) Some of them responded by shoving me or crushing me into the suffocating space beneath stairwells. Then there were those who came for me because they felt like it; I’ve since forgotten most of their names, but Robbie Grout’s, who once stuck a pair of compasses into my arm and stained my shirt sleeve red, survives.

If this sounds galling, what got to me far more at the time were the dismissals. I don’t recall ever being told I was going through a phase, because at twelve, the people who might otherwise have said that didn’t buy in the first place that I could like boys and be aware of it. Plenty asked how I could know or told me outright that I couldn’t, which stung both since the answer was unspeakable and since they were themselves certain of being not-gay. Others decided – and it stuck – that I was an attention seeker.

What always hurt about this was that undeniably, it held a grain of truth. I’d femmed up after all in infant school to irritate straight boys, enjoyed being different for the sake of it and was satisfied on some level with being the gay kid, even as it made life difficult. But with my wild hair, nasal voice, southern accent and foreign name – not to mention nerdiness – I was always going to stick out. Doing so wasn’t hard: over time, I was called an attention seeker for wearing coloured socks, sitting cross-legged and eating ice cream in autumn term.

If it had been true I was making being gay up so my peers cared about me, they cared entirely the wrong way. I never had to falsify anything to be stared at: the things I liked to do just got me noticed. If more basic children paid attention to me, it wasn’t that I sought it – it was that I commanded it.

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Chapter 8: Biology

Chapter 7: Stranger Danger.

I have mixed feelings about biology, and today Mr Frew’s lesson has dragged on.

It’s fifth period, so I’m zipping books away for the walk home when Stephen Hodgson approaches, asking if some girl interests me.

Nope, I sigh.

Why, he asks – because of who she’s going out with?

Nope.

Because of who I’m going out with?

Nope.

‘Because you’re gay?’ asks Stephen, turning to wild theories as the classroom empties.

‘Yes’, I shrug.

‘Really?’

‘Mm.’

I head out.

Chapter 9: Attention.

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Chapter 7: Stranger Danger

Chapter 6: The Age of Consent.

I’d most likely be straight today had Jonathan been a girl. He never could have been, of course – the friendship where things started out between us categorically male, and girls don’t often assault boys – but the fact my flesh responded to his touch even as my mind fled makes me think it would have done to anyone’s. It’s not widely admitted sexual assault can be arousing, but many victims will quietly acknowledge among themselves that that’s part of the violation. At any rate, I don’t think I’m alone in having coped over the years by allowing memories of mine to be erotic.

I was stretched out on the living room sofa a few weeks later when being gay came to me. Eyes shut, brain replaying Jonathan’s words, palm moving over denim jeans, it seemed the natural explanation if his actions or their reenactment made things throb. It didn’t bother me, and was more an oh than anything, but neither did I ask myself whether a girl might have the same effect. I couldn’t have been less attracted to him, but instead of sussing hard-ons were about nerve endings, I assumed the way Jonathan’s fingers turned me on must involve him being a boy, and boys became my sexual focus.

Dial-up modems were still widespread in 2004. Their distinctive electronic rasp was the sound of discovery: home from school in the late afternoon, for evenings and into the night I sat at Mum’s bedroom table googling ‘gay teenagers’ on an HP computer. Avoiding reels of porn, which were a later destination, I found informative websites, advice columns, forums for queer youth and chatrooms. Reclusive, twelve and with no reason to go out, I spent whole weekends on these sites, and not just because of how long it took them to load.

You might be reading this with apprehension, and initially I was apprehensive. As much as anyone today, I’d been told the Internet was a dark, twisted place, not least for children – the home of perverts, deviants and strangers who’d handed sweets out in playgrounds before MSN arrived. In fact, living online saved me. It was where I made my very first queer friendships, mocked Fred Phelps, learnt about the real ins and outs of sex and listened to coming out stories. The net was somewhere I felt uniquely safe: I decided I never wanted to leave, and I haven’t.

Now and then, an unsettling message appeared; I clicked Block and that was that. There’d been no block button when Jonathan sat next to me in German class – indeed, it was our school’s insistence on shielding pupils from unseemly talk of sex that made what happened possible. Unlike in meatspace, no one could do anything to me online that I didn’t want them to. Even away from public forums, my contacts – Floridan Sean, Canadian Chris, Matt in New Zealand, Logan in one of America’s Birminghams – were half a planet away and confined to speaking via onscreen text. It’s hard to imagine a less vulnerable form of communication. Research on sexual violence shows the stranger-predator to be a bogeyman: usually, as I’d been unlucky enough to find out, the culprit is someone known to us.

As we spent whole nights discussing bullying and Buffy, trading mp3s and occasional selfies, it turned out some of my online friends – one or two in their mid-twenties – did think I was cute. It’s hard not making this sound powerfully creepy, but I don’t believe it was ever sinister. These people were part of large and interweaving web communities, some of them with popular LiveJournals, and we’d spoken now and then by webcam with the same platonic ease friends at school had: they were real people as clearly to me as my blogging colleagues now, and when a couple fessed up guiltily to wishing I was older, it was with the shy apologism of a best friend admitting a light crush. It had occurred to me they were cute too, and while nothing beyond affection ever came of it, hearing they felt the same of me was on the whole affirming. In contrast to what I’d been through with someone my own age, it wasn’t predatory at all, but healing.

I won’t speak to others’ experience or make grand points. I’m not even sure what I’m even saying about mine, but mentioning it seems important.

Chapter 8: Biology.

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Coming Out Atheist: a tribute to godless people

I remember a time that I was in an airport, getting coffee before my flight and chatting with the barista. He asked where I was coming from or going to (as chatty people in airports often ask)—and I hesitated. I was coming home from an atheist conference, and I was tired, and I didn’t know if I felt up to having that conversation. But we’d been talking at the conference all weekend about how important coming out was, and I felt like I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t take this opportunity. So I went ahead. I said that I was coming home from an atheist conference, that I was an atheist writer and speaker and had been giving a talk.

And he got the biggest surprised smile on his face, and said, “Thank you. Thank you for doing that work.”

So writes Greta Christina in Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, And Why, released this spring. You know if you’ve watched her blog in recent months that she spent them writing it. I spent parts of them reading it, too.

I can’t say I’m unbiased. I’m quoted several times, thus unlikely to impede book sales on purpose. I have all kinds of reasons not to enrage the author (like she’d need it). And having had input on two drafts, I’m bound to like the final one – I’d have no right to make noises if I didn’t. There’s no point trying to be detached. If you’re seeking a balanced, neutral review, don’t seek mine. But do buy Greta’s book. It’s great.

Coming Out Atheist is in some ways a sequel to Why Are You Atheists So Angry (2012) – more precisely, a difficult second album. Her earlier book (and first atheist one) shared its title with a Skepticon talk attendees and YouTube viewers loved, itself spawned by a viral blog post. The formula makes sense: only a wilfully self-sabotaging writer could fail to capitalise on such a winning theme. After that, though, where to go? Coming Out Atheist isn’t one speech or article’s clear product, nor deliberately topical. It didn’t write itself the way its predecessor might be said to have. Whyever Greta embarked on this and not a different book, she thought about it. Her thought, I suspect, was to shine a light on other other unbelievers.

‘This book feels very much like a collaboration, even a community effort’, the book’s introduction, since cut, read. Why Are You Atheists So Angry was declaratively and self-consciously its author’s book, written Greta-Christina-style by Greta Christina of Greta Christina’s Blog, on Greta Christina’s thoughts about religion, with Greta Christina in its cover art. The maker, not just the medium, was the message. Coming Out Atheist, by contrast, spotlights dozens of names: ‘Sarah, a former Catholic’; ‘Jesse Daw[,] a 33-year-old gay man living in Fort Worth, Texas’; ‘Air Force 2nd Lieutenant Madison Scaccia (dates of service: August 2011 – present)’. ‘CoolRed38, who was brought up as a Muslim in the Middle East’. ‘CD from TX, a former passionate Christian and worship leader’.

These atheists’ and others’ stories fill the book – over 400, many of them cited there, inspired it, and the finished product pays tribute to them. Reading them changed my thinking on a hotly argued topic.

All kinds of tensions have arisen about paralleling queer and atheist struggles, something new atheism has been prone to do from Elisabeth Cornwell’s (then Richard Dawkins’) OUT Campaign to Bill Maher’s statements on unbelief and gay marriage. Straight atheists’ readiness to poach queer lexis certainly deserves reproach, but it bothers me how much critique has stressed stating one’s atheism simply isn’t like being out-LGBT – like ‘coming out’ in either case means one essential thing and nothing else.

Identities mean infinitely many things. There are people who think ‘gay’ means anyone who isn’t straight, who think it means exclusively same-sex attracted, who feel all manner of attractions but claim it since they only act on same-sex ones; people who think ‘atheist’ means any non-theist; that it means convicted god-denier; that it means confrontationalist. Many describe themselves using any of these terms because they understand them certain ways. Likewise coming out.

There are queer people – and atheists in this book – who struggled internally at length and performed tearful confession-rites to parents. There are queer people – and atheists in this book – who never struggled at all. There are queer people and atheists who took years to formulate a clear identity and those who ‘always knew’, queer people and atheists who attacked, harassed or disowned and those who surfed smoothly out of the ‘closet’, queer people and atheists who reject the notion of the closet or necessity of ‘coming out’ at all.

Taxonomising comings-out is easier to do across belief and gender-sexuality columns than it is to do within them. Queerness and godlessness are both taboos that get brushed under the rug, unspeakable politely over dinner – whatever secular heaven Britain might be thought to be, it’s still the case that calling oneself an atheist feels rude. This is a closet just as much, I think, as the ones we’ve build around sexual and gendered deviance, a constructed stigma that policies expression. We can’t speak any more sweepingly about what realities, in either case, are faced – they vary enough that to do so means homogenising queer people and atheists.

I say this as one of each. So, I’m pretty sure, does Greta. Her book’s not out yet (so to speak), but you should read it when it is.

Smash the closet! 10 alternative coming out tips for young people

SmashTheClosetAugust’s been a good month for comings-out: Raven-Symoné, Ben Whishaw, Troye Sivan, Darren Young, Wentworth Miller, Chelsea Manning two days ago – am I missing anyone? Sivan, Young and Miller have self-identified as gay, and Manning as a woman; the press, annoyingly, have applied terms like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ to Whishaw and Raven-Symoné, who to my knowledge haven’t specified their identifiers of choice, just as they did to Jodie Foster following her Golden Globes speech early this year.

Most of these announcements were refreshingly cliché-free: in YouTube videos, high-profile media announcements and storylines on primetime drama, comings-out often deploy received, predictable narratives about teary-eyed acceptance, Being Who You Are™ and loving yourself – none of which speak to every queer person’s life, and some of which enforce misleading or damaging ideas. I think it’s time we thought about reteaching gender and sexuality, with more self-criticism and precision, and that’s especially true of our approaches to coming out, and to the closet: shouldn’t we be considering the ways we’ve discussed them, individually and as a culture, and how those might be flawed or insufficient?

Queer theory is bashed as arcane, elitist and irrelevant, but we can’t not theorise what we experience: the closet metaphor, and the popular discourse we’ve built around leaving it, do prompt particular views of identity. I’m convinced exiting the closet isn’t enough: we need to smash it from the outside with new approaches and better ideas. With that in mind, I asked myself – what would I say now to myself nine years ago, on the edge of out? What would I, personally, tell queer teenagers and young people today, in contrast  to popular and predominant tropes?

No single post could satisfy that question, but I came up with a ten-point list of answers.

  1. It’s all right to get pissed off. This might not seem an obvious start, but think about it: coming out, most of the time, is hard. Potential consequences – harassment, violence, rejection, denialism – make it hard, but so does having to do it in the first place. Your parents most likely taught you from birth that you’re straight, telling you that when you grew up, you’d marry someone of the opposite sex and procreate together, explaining sex as something mummies and daddies do, talking about ‘gay people’ as a them, not a facet of us: chances are, you just assumed you were straight by default, and realising you weren’t was a headfuck. However your loved ones react to your leaving the closet, they’re the reason you were in it to begin with, and the much of what makes leaving it difficult. I’m angry about that. Contrary to depictions of coming out in popular culture – dominated by tears, passivity and self-directed angst – you can be too. It doesn’t mean you hate them.
  2. Instead of ‘coming out’, you can just be outYou know that assumption any given person is straight – even people whose sexual or gender identities aren’t knowable, like babies or strangers? That assumption makes things harder for us. It’s why we have to announce we aren’t cishets to every new person we meet, why we get excluded from social discussions, why we sometimes feel like guests in our own homes. Once we know we aren’t, I sometimes think announcing so in dramatic, deliberate ways shores up the problem: the more shocking not being straight is made to seem, the more straightness gets reified as the default. Consider that, instead of sitting people down to give them the talk or making stressful, emotional speeches, you have the option of just getting on with things – of not formally declaring yourself queer, but not hiding it either. Jodie Foster did just that.
  3. There’s no set narrative you have to follow if you choose a deliberate ‘coming out’, of course – and for some people, that certainly is the best choice. It doesn’t need to be via a phone call, a letter or a sobbing sit-down confession: why not a blog post, a newspaper article, a piece of art? The story you tell might not fit popular patterns: it may not be true you’ve never had any interest in, or positive experiences with, the ‘opposite sex'; that if you’re trans*, you feel you were born in the wrong body; that you always knew you were different somehow. You may not feel different at all, which is fine. Anything you feel, in fact, is fine. If you don’t feel vulnerable or upset when you come out, you don’t need to be – you can be happy, confident, indifferent or angry and confrontational. There are reasons you might be any of these. All emotions here are valid.
  4. Identities needn’t be something you areWe’re constantly told being gay or straight (not to mention anything between or beyond) is just the way we are – that we’re ‘born this way’, that’s it’s ‘who we are’ or connects somehow to our finger length or number of older brothers. Identifiers like ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’ are, in the end, just identifiers – words like ‘Whovian’ or ‘Directioner’ that we use as social emblems when we feel they best describe us, and very much the products of specific cultures. (There weren’t gay men or lesbians in Victorian London, but there were Uranians and sapphists; there weren’t gay and straight people in the 1600s, just some people who practised sodomy and some who didn’t.) Identities can therefore change – I’ve identified at various points as straight, bisexual, gay and (currently) queer – which can get interesting. Don’t let people tell you you’re really anything but what you say you are: you get to articulate your sexual or gender identity however works for you, and plenty of room exists for flexibility and creativity. If there aren’t words that express how you feel, make new ones up – we’ve done it with sapiosexual and protosexual and gynosexual – or, if you’d prefer, discard labels altogether. They are, after all, only labels.
  5. You don’t need anyone else’s approval. The ‘born this way’ argument, that we entered the world with predetermined sexual identities and have no choice in any aspect of our sexuality or gender, is pitched to apologise for us – to suggest that since we’ve no control over it, we can’t be judged morally or psychologically for not being cisgender and straight. Like plenty of popular coming out narratives, this doesn’t speak to everyone: personally, for example, I fit perfectly the image deployed by homophobes of someone who could engage solely in straight relationships but chooses not to. The argument we should be making is that in sexual and gender-based terms, people have autonomy, and no aspect of their sexuality or gender – include whatever choices might be involved – needs anyone’s approval or permission. The only consent I’ll ever need is my partners’, and you don’t need to defend your identity from the judgement of family, friends or authorities. Their judgement isn’t valid anyway.
  6. Telling religion to go fuck itself is okay. I’ve seen strong urges in LGBT discourse to reclaim religion: Lady Gaga singing God made us queer, LGB organisations working keenly with faith groups, suggestions Jesus was gay (no, really); I saw ‘encouragement’ at university for LGBT students to find churches that accommodated them, or pursue readings of scripture that got round its homophobic and transphobic aspects. While, being an atheist, I don’t find a nice God any less silly than a nasty one, I’m glad if personally this helps you through the night. On the hand, if you find yourself leaving your faith on top of coming out, you’re entitled to support, not pressure. I see LGBT people pushed toward liberal religion, in particular, in the U.S., where churches can bear huge social and community power, and religiosity is treated as a sign of sexual morality. It’s a reasonable conclusion their power isn’t deserved or legitimate; that an essentially random set of sexual and gendered taboos, based on unknowable ideas about theoretical beings’ whims, isn’t a good basis for ethics or social structure. If you decide religious bodies have no place dictating your sex life or gender, however nicely, you don’t need to feel bad about that.
  7. It isn’t your job to educate people. Straight people are going to get stuff wrong, and say things that piss you off. They’re especially likely to do this if you live outside the gay-straight binary – identifying for example as bi- or pansexual, asexual, queer or questioning – and cis people are almost certain to if you’re trans*. Much of the time, they’ll get defensive when you’re pissed off and insist you explain where they went wrong, but it isn’t your duty to school them, leading them by the hand through everything they need to understand but don’t, when you don’t want to. Schooling people takes patience, and can be emotionally demanding. We live in the age of Wikipedia and Google: not knowing about things has ceased to be an excuse, and if people aren’t aware of things they need to be, they don’t get to demand your time and effort helping them to understand. If you’d rather not deal with that, tell them to go and look up the Genderbread Person, Queeriodic Table or the Gender Wiki.
  8. You don’t have to wait till ‘it gets better’. You know all those YouTube videos, the ones Dan Savage started, with happy, successful LGBT people saying how nice their lives are to support and encourage queer youth? If I’d seen those when I was a teenager, stuck on a cycle of violence, harassment and self-harm, it would have done nothing at all for me, except perhaps make me feel worse still. When education is institutionally queerphobic, it’s an empty promise in false solidarity for someone to say that, since their personal life is now wonderful, you should assume yours will be too someday, sitting through further years of misery and torture while you wait. Someday be damned: you deserve safety and justice here and now. You are allowed to demand them from people tasked with your care, even if it means being angry, confrontational and aggressive.
  9. It’s not just you, even if it seems like that. Remember those points in (1) and (4) about our teaching people they’re straight, and identifiers just being identifiers? I’ve got a feeling most people are less straight than they see themselves as being, and those who identify as LGBTQ much rarer than those who’ve had, or could have, some queer experience. It’s easy to feel you’re the only one in your family, school or town who isn’t a cishet (trust me, I’ve been there), but the odds are, it isn’t so – and moreover, your being out might prompt other people to leave their own closets behind. Even though you might not see that happening, bear it in mind if isolation or loneliness are getting to you; openness and liberation about gender and sexuality are self-perpetuating, and once you’re out, you might start changing people’s thinking.
  10. You get to be part of something awe-inspiring. Being queer or trans*, especially once out, has its share of downsides – things can get difficult. At the same time, there’s a huge community of people who’ll be on your side, and that community, much of the time, is amazing. Collectively, we’re fucking with world’s preconceived assumptions about sexuality and gender, and that’s pretty exciting. We’re positive about sex in all its wild and wonderful forms, beyond mainstream sex education’s procreation-centric, cisheteronormative scripts; we’re home to incredibly varied relationship forms, beyond the heteromonogamous nuclear family; we’re traditionally relaxed about gender roles and open to warping, twisting and reinterpreting them – even doing this to gender itself. We have our own forms of language, literary genres and whole art forms, our own contributions to political and social thought . Much of this was born out of oppression and marginalisation, of course, but that doesn’t stop it being valuable or beautiful – in fact, isn’t generating ideas that disrupt and challenge social conventions, and building communities that do that, a pretty great response to getting stepped on by them? Our culture’s far from perfect much of the time, but it’s still an amazing one to have at your fingertips.

You don’t have to spend your life in the closet, no – but nor do you have to leave it a certain way, in line with expectations or stereotypes. You might even find that, as you emerge, it creaks and buckles till the door hangs smashed and swinging limply from its hinges, never again to shut.

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Nothing to declare – praise for Jodie Foster and the politics of coming out

One irony of Jodie Foster’s speech at last month’s Golden Globes has been its lauding – despite her statement, ‘There won’t be a big coming-out speech tonight’ – as a closet-leaving moment.

‘It has been been widely known in Hollywood circles for years’, the Guardian’s story read, ‘that Foster … is gay’; the actor, according to the Indian Express, ‘confirmed long-running speculation that she is gay’. What Foster did, in fact, was refer in passing to a female ex-partner and state, uninterested in giving further details, that she came out decades previously while ‘a fragile young girl’. (At no point did she specify that she came out as gay, or identified as such, but we all know everyone with a same-gender partner does.)

Given the recent trend of celebrity self-outings, it’s difficult to blame the press for wanting another. ‘Living a gay life without publicly acknowledging it’, Zachary Quinto wrote in 2011, ‘is simply not enough’; the following year, Anderson Cooper told Andrew Sullivan and his readers, ‘The unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle.’

We’ve all known people hesitant to come out, and the privacy defence is a common one. ‘It’s my business,’ they’ve told us. ‘Why does anybody else need to know?’ Coming out, the usual answer goes, is political: creating visibility erodes established stigmas, and the more people are openly queer, the less extraordinary it will seem not to be straight, making others feel less marginalised, alienated and alone. If some of us are able to be out, Cooper’s and Quinto’s statements argued, we ought to be.

Foster’s speech was notable for its departure from this loud-‘n’-proud narrative, informing us her coming out took place ‘a thousand years ago, back in the Stone Age’ as a gradual, private process, before the average star was made to share ‘the details of their private life’. ‘Privacy,’ she said. ‘Some day in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was.’

The politics of erotic privacy have always been contentious, and while each of us deserves the time to go public (or not) when we feel we can, it’s easy to appreciate the sentiment that all those who can come out should, in whose face Foster’s emphasis on privacy flies. As long as our society punishes non-straight identities, after all, they aren’t a purely personal area, and if the closet means anything, surely it means the public presumption of heterosexuality?

Insistence on queer desire as private, too, has often worked to shame it. Arthur Gore, the Conservative whip who co-sponsored the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, asked that those aided by it act ‘quietly and with dignity’, without ‘any form of public flaunting’ – in other words, that they deviate as much from sexual norms in private as they wished, but never think of acting out (that is, acting ‘queer’) in public, instilling in the straight populace a troublingly more-than-academic awareness of their lives. (The Act itself legalised gay sex in private, but public displays of even the mildest affection stayed subject for decades to police harassment).

It’s worth considering on the other hand that in practical terms, Jodie Foster was already out before the Golden Globes – not just to the ‘trusted friends and family’ her speech made mention of, but to her industry and the world beyond. As Robyn Harper has pointed out in the Huffington Post, her relationship with Cydney Bernard was publicly acknowledged in a similar speech from 2007 while still ongoing, and their split the following year was covered in the press. Anyone who’d wanted to find out if Jodie Foster was a straight woman could easily have done so, and no doubt many did. Vilifying her refusal, then, to come out explicitly as gay, lesbian or anything else ignores that she already served as a queer public figure, and was never required to utilise received identifiers. (Some of us, myself included, aren’t willing to define ourselves except as non-straight).

The retroactive pressure exerted on Foster by her critics demands not just that she be out, but that she come out, with all the PR bells and whistles we’ve grown used to in the last few years. As with Jaymi Hensley’s coming out on The X-Factor last autumn, the subtext is that famous people are straight until they announce otherwise. The closet, in this sense, is recuperative: the more loudly and dramatically one exits it, particularly as a public figure, the more surprising the disclosure is made to seem, thus reinforcing straight identity as the presumptive default. If anyone is anything but heterosexual, then like contraband at an airport, this is something to declare; straight people are in danger, otherwise, of being forced to acknowledge those around them as potentially queer.

It isn’t just celebrities, of course, whose revelations can cause a stir – hence we’ve found ourselves historically trapped, wedged captive between erasure in the closet and the othering co-optation of theatrical comings-out. What Jodie Foster models is a radical third option, a politics of being but not coming out, concealing nothing while rejecting problematic identity-narration. There’s much to be learned from her speech, which troubles the sexual status quo as much as it troubled columnists.

What Jaymi Hensley’s coming out reveals about the closet and fame

Among the queer politics crowd, reality TV is frequently bashed; moving more in those circles than between the cocktail-serving clubs of Soho and Shoreditch, and being unabashedly a regular viewer, this is an awkward fact for me. The ‘bread and circuses’ argument – that light entertainment culture on Saturday nights acts as a political narcotic – has its merits, but I’d argue that if you want to find out how societies work, their circuses are the best place to look.

Like freak shows from the early 20th century, reality competitions are so often the home of the marginalised, helping for better or worse to form their role in public consciousness. It’s the X Factor stage specifically, with its annual quota of mincing queens and sensitive closet-dwellers, on which queer people’s social role in Britain is most publicly played out, and as with pop culture in general, tuning in can tell us much about the things that really matter. The widely reported coming out of Union J member Jaymi Hensley, who yesterday thanked his bandmembers and mentor Louis Walsh for ‘supporting his decision’, is a case in point.

The programme has a history of queer contestants, many of whom had noted comings out during or after their time on it, including Rylan Clark, Jade Ellis, Lucy Spraggan and MK1’s Charlie Rundle in this year’s series. At this point in the run, the usual onscreen comments that each act has ‘grown as a person’ are being made, and coverage of Hensley’s statement fits the X Factor-as-therapy mould. Attention has been paid to his account of a teenage fan’s tweet prompting his disclosure, and to Walsh’s encouragement; as in the cases of Marcus Collins and Joe McElderry before now, whose success there led to public self-outings, it paints the programme as a positive force for queer liberation, which embraces and values non-straight identity.

I’m sceptical, of course. It’s first of all a troubling idea that anyone should require fame and financial opportunity for coming out to be an option – and, of course, I’m still not sure why Robbie Williams appeared alongside Collins’ parents last year to express love and support, but his boyfriend was conspicuously absent. Most troubling here though is all the evidence suggesting Hensley was out when X Factor began.

Reports quote him as keeping his current partner’s identity under wraps, which is, of course, his choice, but the party in question is on searchable record supporting Union J via social networks throughout the competition, including making public declarations of the relationship; there was Hensley’s now-deleted Myspace page, which listed him as gay, and there remains the YouTube video from two years ago (now with over twenty thousand hits) of him performing at a Pride concert. Is this the public profile of a closet case? Probably not. In which case, why only make the announcement now?

From their very first appearances, both Union J and erstwhile competitors District 3 – next year, I’m hoping for an act named Jurisdiction π – were marketed explicitly in heterosexual terms. There was their first audition, where a guest judge commented, ‘I think the girls will love you’. There were scantily clad, gyrating female dancers in their numbers. There were stories in the press of girls ‘mobbing’ the band members and invading their hotel room. There were interviews about ‘how a girl can impress them’ – and in the latter one, Jaymi Hensley played along, as he seemed to when he stated in the press, ‘I’m in a relationship and have been for three years… she wears the trousers‘.

I don’t know if X Factor producers knew all along that Hensley preferred guys. Given how public that apparently was, it wouldn’t surprise me. But I am struck that by not acknowledging that – and, in fact, by airbrushing it out of all publicity – they necessitated a coming-out: if his orientation had been shown matter-of-factly from the start, as Lucy Spraggan’s was, there would have been no need for a headline-winning revelation. Straightwashing Union J like this seems effectively to have put one of their members back inthe closet for three months. It suggests that on X Factor, gay men are only allowed to be comedy acts or victims who need support: if they’re neither straight nor bothered by that, there might not be room.

It also shows that heteronormativity still operates at the highest levels. In workplaces and universities, we might have started to chip away at the assumption that any given person is straight; among the great and good (or at least ITV), this isn’t yet the case. A presumption still exists, evident right from the beginning of this year’s series, that conventionally handsome boybanders must be as interested in girls as girls are in them; that while lots of young men like other men, lots are indifferent to gender and lots aren’t interested in anyone, none of that could possibly apply to the budding rich and famous.

In common use, the phrase implies something into which people are born: before we came out, we were always in the closet. The truth is, closets come in flatpacks, and straight authorities – our parents, teachers, television producers – build them around us by stigmatising queer expression. Jaymi Hensley never made his relationship a secret, but X Factor turned it into one, like a homophobic teacher in whose classroom certain crushes discussed at break time must be hushed up. However ‘out’ we are, spaces of necessary nondisclosure remain: the living rooms of bigoted relatives, for example, or train seats next to aggressive groups of drunken straight men. When we’re told in infancy that we’ll grow up, marry ‘members of the opposite sex’ and procreate, advised about what boys and girls do differently and generally labelled as straight, that nondisclosure is made similarly hard to avoid.

I’m glad Jaymi Hensley’s found his way out of the closet X Factor constructed around him, but I’m angry that he had to – and that his sex life could only be discussed on the producers’ terms.

So many of our parents, after all, have raised us to believe we’re straight and made it hard to say otherwise, only to proffer words like ‘I support you’ once we have. The way to support us, straight people everywhere, is not to make us invisible.