Coming out is a significant milestone in the lives of LGBT people, but it’s not guaranteed to be smooth sailing. Celebrities, in particular, face scrutiny in their coming out journeys. But does that invalidate their experiences as queer people?
On Thursday, news broke of Janelle Monáe coming out revealing that she is pansexual in a Rolling Stone. “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women,” she told the magazine. “I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.”
Monáe initially identified as bisexual, she clarifies, “but then later I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too.’ I’m open to learning more about who I am.” The interview struck a chord with fans: In just one day, searches for “pansexual” increased on Merriam-Webster.com by 11,000%.
The significance of her coming out, especially on #LesbianVisibilityDay, was not lost on fans online: Many tweeted about what the coming-out experience meant for them:
We been knew Janelle Monáe was a member of the tribe. But in an America where the LGBT murder rate has gone up by nearly 90%, and when queer black folks are erased in both queer and black communities, a famous black woman stood proudly and claimed her queerness
That’s important pic.twitter.com/zUCfoLpibV
— Robert De Negro (@baizeodu) April 26, 2018
Janelle Monae’s coming out shows people what many don’t seem to comprehend. Many folks in the polysexual community identify with multiple labels: bisexual, pansexual, queer, etc.
Each person is free to use what ever label or labels they feel comfortable with.
— pamela (@_pamelarants) April 26, 2018
With Janelle Monae’s coming out I want to talk about why “coming out” as a linear narrative imposed on queer and trans people is ultimately harmful.
— PRETTY ON THE INSIDE (@BatCaveFreak) April 26, 2018
Kehlani similarly came out as queer this week. In now-deleted tweets, the 23-year-old singer wrote that she identified as queer rather than gay or bisexual because those labels didn’t quite fit for her.
Some followers criticized her for misrepresenting bisexuality.
u can identify however u want ofc but when you say things like “not bi” then describe exactly the attraction a bi person feels it can make people who don’t really kno wht bi means think that nb and intersex people arent included in tht attraction
— lemony snicket (@Linawilso) April 22, 2018
She also received criticism after stating that she was “attracted to women, men, REALLY attracted to queer men, non-binary people, intersex people, [and] trans people”.
''i'm queer not bi, not straight…I'm attracted to women, men, REALLY attracted to queer men''
Kehlani sweetie…….what??!!?@!?? pic.twitter.com/7WcXar7ZzL
— Dji (@swarovskitits) April 22, 2018
Criticism arose for Monáe, as well, mainly because in the past she’s skirted around the question entirely. Just last week, in an interview with New York Times, she would only confirm that she was “an advocate for women,” but that she wanted Dirty Computer to be especially relevant for black and queer women.
But what obligation do either of these women have to come out in a way that matched our expectations?
For Kehlani, a majority of the scrutiny came from the language she used to describe her identity and how she saw that attraction to others. In followup tweets, she admitted she deleted her initial comment, “because I am being corrected about the way in which I listed the gender spectrum and I’m super-super sensitive to being offensive, especially when I’m only trying to appreciate.”
i retracted my queer tweet because i am being corrected about the way in which i listed the gender spectrum and i’m super super sensitive to being offensive especially when i’m only trying to appreciate. point is, i love love, and that love lies in every gender there is.
— Kehlani (@Kehlani) April 23, 2018
Even if she has much to learn when it comes to the most politically correct terms to communicate her identity, does that somehow invalidate Kehlani’s experience as a queer woman? Of course not—but the reaction to her doing so say otherwise.
Both Kehlani and Janelle Monae are public figures, under heightened scrutiny regarding how they identify and the way that they share their truth. But it’s important to consider the ways that their other identities shape this criticism. Respectability politics are present for black women, queer or not. But it’s especially complex when we examine how queerness impacts being a famous woman of color. For both Kehlani and Monáe face more skepticism, pushback, and invalidation than white artists who have come out as non-hetero, like Miley Cyrus, have not.
However imperfect, though, Monae’s and Kehlani narratives are important. They allow for a broader idea of what queerness looks like and remind us not everyone has a flawless coming-out story. Nor should it be a requirement for identifying as part of the LGBT community. These two pop stars sharing their experiences are a gift—and should be celebrated as such.