At the recent Human Rights Campaign ‘Time to THRIVE’ conference, Canadian actor Ellen Page (star of Juno and Whip it) gave a touching and deeply personal speech. For the first time, before thousands of people, she publically acknowledged her sexuality: “I’m here today because I am gay. And because… maybe I can make a difference. To help others have an easier and more hopeful time.” As a feminist and advocate for LGBTI rights, I found Page’s public confession (aptly delivered on Valentine’s Day) courageous, moving and above all, inspirational. The visibly nervous actor exuded an air of fragility and vulnerability in the delivery of her message. An overwhelming sense of “social responsibility” and a “personal obligation” were the motivating factors that propelled her to act. She reflected:
I also do it selfishly, because I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission. I suffered for years because I was scared to be out. My spirit suffered, my mental health suffered and my relationships suffered. And I’m standing here today, with all of you, on the other side of that pain.
Her emotive speech encompassed the internal and external struggles LGBTI people encounter, in publically acknowledging their sexuality. She professed, “I know there are people in this room who go to school every day and get treated like shit for no reason. Or you go home and you feel like you can’t tell your parents the whole truth about yourself.”
Page addressed her audience with the hope that in sharing her story, she might help those who have suffered and are still suffering, to reassure them that they are not alone. Her private battle, like that of countless others, illustrates the importance of having public role models in our society who represent diverse sexual orientations. Those in the spotlight have the unique ability to influence opinion and the power of public figures who rally against homophobia, should not be underestimated. Role models such as Page give hope to young people grappling with their own sexuality while demonstrating that being gay is not an affliction or abnormality, that equality is a human right, that one day the pain will get better and that they too have the potential to experience fulfilling and rewarding lives.
Unsurprisingly, Page’s revelations received much attention in the media. Jane Czyzselska, editor of Diva, a UK based magazine for lesbian and bi-sexual women told The Guardian, “this is news, but it shouldn’t be.” She is right. In an ideal world, no one would raise an eyelid upon discovering a friend/family member/colleague or neighbour was gay, straight, queer, bi-sexual, pan-sexual, a-sexual and everything else in-between. Unfortunately, civilisation has not yet evolved into a sexually fluid utopia and Page’s bravery in coming out should not be diminished – particularly given that there are still very few openly gay actors in Hollywood. While much of the response to Page’s coming out was overwhelmingly supportive, there were those who took to social media to express their desire that she “keep it to herself.” Acclaimed actors, like the general populace, are not immune to the harmful effects of bigotry and hate; that Page suffered such inner turmoil before finally reaching a place of strength to publically acknowledge her sexuality, speaks volumes regarding the nature of the world in which we live.
In the West, our society is undeniably heteronormative – the underlying assumption being that one is straight until proven gay is no secret. As a queer woman, I have regularly encountered the negative aspects of heteronormative prejudice. When starting a new job, I await the inevitable ‘do you have a boyfriend’ line of questioning. My appearance too is a source of confusion – as someone who embraces femininity, I do not fit the societal perception of what a lesbian should look like – namely, I am not a masculine, shorthaired, vest-wearing incarnation of KD Lang. Such perceptions are based on stereotypes held by those whose only lesbian point of reference may be Ellen Degeneres, who according to this line of thinking, consequently represents the entirety of the gay female population. Such stereotypes, of course, are rubbish. Gay women, like their straight counterparts, are not a one-dimensional group. And this is exactly why we need more women like Ellen Page: to represent diversity and breakdown stereotypes!
At present, we live in a society that makes assumptions about our sexuality. Those who not conform to the dominant heterosexual norm are inevitably labelled as ‘other.’ Heteronormativity is everywhere and it is pervasive. Based on sexual attraction between differentiated genders – male and female – the underlying belief is that masculinity and femininity are dichotomous yet complimentary. This informs the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm because procreation occurs naturally between male and female.
Thankfully, feminist academics have highlighted the constructed nature of gender – that behaviours usually associated with masculinity and femininity are in fact not innate, but rather are learned, societal constructs. If we accept this to be true, then the foundations underscoring the normality of heterosexuality become rather shaky.
Despite this, our visual culture remains saturated with heteronormative stereotypes: advertisements on television, images in magazines and the portrayal of relationships by Hollywood. Everywhere we turn, heterosexuality and gender norms flood our vision. In her speech Page declared:
There are pervasive stereotypes about masculinity and femininity that define how we are all supposed to act, dress and speak. They serve no one. Anyone who defies these so-called ‘norms’ becomes worthy of comment and scrutiny.
What then are the implications for young women (and men) who do not subscribe to these norms and ideals? According to Beyond Blue, in an Australian study, 61 per cent of young LGBTI people have experienced verbal abuse while 18 per cent experienced physical abuse. Furthermore, LGBTI youth have higher levels of social and mental health problems than their heterosexual counterparts, including dangerous alcohol and drug use, dropping out of school, homelessness, self-harm and even suicide. When confronted with these statistics it is clear that something is amiss with the way sexuality is understood and perpetuated within our society.
Dichotomising sexuality and differentiating individuals through the use of labels – that is, straight and not straight – is rife with potential dangers and gives validity to homophobic beliefs surrounding what is normal and abnormal. In order to counteract homophobic undercurrents within society, a reframing of the way relationships are viewed and defined should occur. Rather than categorizing sexual attraction by difference, we should instead focus on similarities. The gender of two individuals in a consenting relationship should be irrelevant; whether it is opposite sex or same-sex attraction, what is important are the sentiments of love, equality and emotional connectivity that are shared. By creating an inclusive framework that values all varieties of relationships, focuses on shared experiences and celebrates diversity, instead of the exclusive paradigm that currently exists, we as a society can change the experience for those who fall outside of the ‘norm.’ As Richard Dyer emphatically states, “…although homosexuality may not be a statistical norm, it is entirely normal for us. Once this is accepted, once homosexuality is a normality, then it follows that no sexuality can be the norm.”