"Did Colton Haynes just come out?" That was the question bouncing through the blogosphere earlier this week after a commenter on Tumblr wrote how "excited" they were to learn the actor "had a secret gay past" and Haynes replied with a vague statement.
"Was it a secret?" the Arrow and Teen Wolf star wrote. "Let's all just enjoy life & have no regrets."
Haynes is right. That "gay past" the commenter referenced isn't a well-kept secret, though there was an effort to bury it.
A quick Google search unearths a number of supposed personal and professional photos from Haynes's younger years with an alleged ex-boyfriend, including an intimate photospread for XY - a gay/bi youth magazine which enjoyed a respectable-size readership during its heyday, before ending its run nearly a decade ago. The photos surfaced as Haynes's star began to rise with the popularity of Teen Wolf, but as quickly as gay blogs started reporting about the images they also posted about the threats of legal action they received from Haynes's attorney if the images were not removed from their sites.
Haynes's recent response on Tumblr is the first time he's (somewhat) addressed questions surrounding his sexuality since those photos kicked off years of speculation -- but it is far from a "coming out." Instead, the actor's coy comment firmly places him among those who reside in Hollywood's expanding glass closet, a contraption that is weakening the ground we've gained in social acceptance and inadvertently sending harmful messages to LGBT youth.
There is a disturbing discordance between the improvement of LGBT visibility in entertainment we've experienced recently and the entertainers who are a part of it.
A number of TV shows have broken down barriers in the past two years alone. How to Get Away With Murder tackled the modern realities of HIV for gay men, while the Emmy-winning Transparent proved transgender characters can be at the center of a successful show. Empire and Orange Is the New Black expanded the landscape for queer people of color. Arrow gave us TV's first bisexual superhero, Sara Lance (a.k.a. the Canary), and its spinoff series, The Flash, featured gay supervillain Pied Piper in its first season.
However, while messages of tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion would seem to be on the rise, an alarming number of young actors continue to dodge, deny, and perform impressive displays of verbal vogueing to avoid addressing the possibility they may be anything other than heterosexual -- even in the face of apparent photographic evidence.
Empire's Jussie Smollett pulled a lesser version of Jodie Foster's 2013 Golden Globes "coming out" speech when he made an appearance on Ellen in March, awkwardly telling the lesbian trailblazer he's "never been in the closet" but for some reason seemed unable to clearly state exactly how he identifies.
Kristen Stewart also made headlines in August after her mother reportedly outed her as bisexual and photos of the Twilight star kissing another woman surfaced. However, rather than directly address her sexuality she rambled on in an interview with Nylon about living in the "ambiguity of this life" and stated, "Google me, I'm not hiding."
Jack Falahee, who plays How to Get Away With Murder's gay character Connor Walsh, told Out magazine in a February interview that talking about his real-life sexuality "seemed reductive" and wouldn't accomplish anything.
Additionally, pop performer Demi Lovato, who was perfectly at ease singing about bi-curiosity in her recent hit "Cool for the Summer," coyly told British late-night host Alan Carr, "I'm not confirming and I'm definitely not denying" anything about her own sexuality.
Of course it's not fair to place the responsibility of improving LGBT visibility solely on the shoulders of people in the spotlight. Coming out is as much an individual experience as it is a shared one, and being a celebrity doesn't automatically include one's duty to profess they are a part of any community. After all, coming out can still have a negative impact on an entertainer's career and the decision to reveal any part of their private life comes with a cost that should be carefully evaluated.
And that's the real issue.
It's a huge problem when a rising star like Haynes is more comfortable publicly talking about his struggles with anxiety than he is about his sexuality. What does it say about the true state of social equality today when actors can play LGBT characters and simulate sex onscreen, yet can't even address who they are with a statement as simple as "Yes, I like dudes?"
We are living in an era in which the fantasy Hollywood creates, specifically for young people, is becoming more accepting than its public reality. LGBT youth today are more likely to find unapologetic queer characters on TV than a comfortably out young person playing one. We're applauding the introduction of characters from across the LGBT spectrum in entertainment, while actors who may not be straight avoid the topic with a cleverly concocted response that does anything but clearly answer the question.
This issue is only compounded by our current collective mind-set that discussing the sexual orientation of a public person is taboo because "it shouldn't matter."
Of course, a future when a person's sexuality doesn't generate a reaction any more than the color of their eyes is a wonderful utopian ideal to strive toward, but we need to stop pretending that avoiding the topic altogether is somehow making the world a better place for people who aren't heterosexual. It doesn't. Not when Republican presidential hopefuls are building their campaigns on promises of repealing our civil rights and suspected gay teens are flung from rooftops in Syria.
This approach only serves to make us invisible and teaches our youth that who they are is something that should only be reflected in fantasy, and addressed with promises of "it gets better" rather than examples of real, prominent young people living authentic lives.
If who we are truly "shouldn't matter," and as Haynes wrote on Tumblr, we should "enjoy life and have no regrets," then we shouldn't fear simply and clearly stating it -- regardless of how we identify. It's not about getting into the details of who we sleep with. It's about acknowledging it and moving on.
Rather than standing by on social media cocked and ready to fire at anyone who dare actually mention what is quickly becoming the love that dare not speak its name once again, we should be working to change the common response to questions about sexuality and gender identity from "It shouldn't matter" to, "Yes, I'm gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, gender-queer, pansexual, straight, or whatever -- and it shouldn't matter." Because change -- real, true, lasting social change -- won't happen until the most visible among us stands up without fear of being counted.
Most often, when queer people question the sexuality of a celebrity like Colton Haynes, we aren't looking to expose a scandal; we're looking for examples of people who are like us and show the world we can succeed in any field our heterosexual counterparts can. Seeing ourselves in every aspect of society is exactly what gives us hope. And we need it.