Coming Out in the Digital Age: Still Figuring it Out

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Image courtesy of Joshua Basset
Image courtesy of Joshua Basset

In an interview that surprised thousands of young girls across America, Joshua Bassett, teen heartthrob and star of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, announced his coming out exclusively on Clevver News.

In a moment of pure admiration for fellow heartthrob Harry Styles, Bassett gushed, "Who doesn't think Harry Styles is cool? Also, he's hot, you know? He's very charming too, lots of things."

The interview took a turn when Bassett coyly added, "I guess this is, um, this is also my coming out video."

After it was released, Twitter blew up with support — as well as speculation on whether the video was sincere or rather just glib.

In response to many fans claiming he was only joking and queer-baiting, Bassett posted a sincere video and caption to Instagram, writing in part, "My entire life, people have told me my sexuality" but informing fans he is still "figuring out who he is."

Bassett's coming-out experience eerily mirrors another queer teen icon, JoJo Siwa, who came out earlier this year through a series of tweets. Siwa had previously hinted at her coming out in a viral TikTok, in which she danced along to the chorus of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." However, fans were not totally convinced until she donned a T-shirt that read "Best. Gay. Cousin. Ever."

The trend of disbelieving popular young people coming out in the media only works to perpetuate heterocentric ideas around sexuality. Coming out is hard enough for young people (or people of any age), but it is made even more difficult when fans of queer celebrities question their coming-out process or demand more proof.

As Bassett put it, he is still figuring it out. "Figuring it out" is a very valid, and often personal, part of coming to accept one's queer identity, and it can be just that much harder when fans seem to think they have already figured celebrities out.

How coming out is changing

Bassett and Siwa have become popular symbols of what it means to come out as a member of Generation Z. Whereas older, millennial child stars, such as Raven-Symoné, Demi Lovato, and Miley Cyrus, all began the "figuring it out" process around the same age Siwa and Bassett did, a lack of acceptance — especially for actors in children's media — forced them to figure it out on their own, in silence.

Only after their Disney contracts had terminated and they had begun to distance themselves from their childhood sitcoms were these stars able to publicly come out. This came with its own challenges, as many of these older stars had already made names for themselves as percieved heterosexual tweens.

Raven-Symoné, in particular, found it challening to continue publicly coming out as a Lesbian to a fan base that had come to know and love her as the spunky, boy-crazy, teen psychic of That's So Raven. In a June 2018 interview with Variety magazine, Raven talked about some of the setbacks she faced in the industry as a teenager that prevented her from coming out sooner, saying, "I remember that I wore Ambercrombie & Fitch jeans, a stereotypical lesbian vest, and a tie, and one of the members of my team went up to my mom and was like, 'She looks too much like a lesbian. Can you tell her to put on a skirt and makeup? Because then they'll accept her and come to her concert.'"

In the past, coming out in the public eye meant defining oneself by one's sexuality, choosing a label, and repping it. LGBTQ celebrities were known for their sexuality and perceived in ways straight celebrities never were. To come out was to say "I'm different than you." It cost many their careers.

Even when Ellen DeGeneres made a comeback after suffering a career setback following her coming out, her identity as a Lesbian was at the forefront of her public image.

For younger stars, such as Bassett and Siwa, coming out has had less to do with community acceptance and more to do with self-acceptance.

Coming out for young people today does not mean discovering a finite and exclusive attraction for the same sex, it does not mean certainty, it does not mean fitting into the box society has labeled "other." Coming out for young people today means trying on different hats, embracing the confusion, and fitting into all the boxes, some of the boxes, or none of the boxes.

In a digital world where information travels like wildfire across social media, learning about one's sexuality and finding acceptance in a broad variety of communities has become much easier. However, for young people, coming out in the digital world also means new challenges the older generations never had to deal with. It means a lack of privacy, it means faceless bullies who can hide behind their screens, and it means constant speculation as some try to put you into a box.

Breaking the binary

According to a recent poll in the Washington Post, one in six Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ, and of those, half identify as Bisexual. More young folks coming out as Bisexual are taking the stigma out of binary identity politics. "Bisexual" is less finite, more ambiguous. It is harder for outsiders to put you in a box when you, yourself, can fit in all the boxes, sometimes all at once.

The idea that sexuality exists as "one or the other," "I'm different than you," or "I'm the same as you" is becoming outdated. The spike in Gen Z adults idendifing as Bisexual is reflective of how much easier it is for younger people to explore their sexuality without finding themselves trapped in a box or identity that society can immediately label as foreign.

The greater acceptance of Generation Z, and the understanding that sexuality and gender exist not as binaries but on a spectrum, has also allowed young stars, like Bassett and Siwa, to do something else entirely revolutionary with their coming out stories: keep them private.

Joshua Bassett never said what he was coming out as. Fans could only speculate, but for the most part, he was left alone. In this sense, Bassett is able to gain acceptance from the LGBTQ community without having to publicly disclose too much personal information about his sexuality. He is able to utilize the kindness and support many before him never had as he continues to explore and figure it all out.

As we move forward, and more Gen Z kids are able to grow up with young queer role models, particularly ones who refuse to label themselves, the community will continue to see fewer boxes and much more acceptance.