The coming out process can be messy. It can also be rewarding. And it can cause unwanted backlash. It’s unpredictable. It’s a harrowing experience, rife with anxiety, torturous thoughts of how bad it might go, who might say what, and will people think differently of you. But in the end, coming out is a necessity, an honest, solemn rite of passage in LGBTQ+ life.
It was tremendously difficult back in the day to come out. There were very few role models that you could look up to for inspiration. Some of us had the AIDS crisis that prevented us from coming out, since most people equated being gay with AIDS. Many of us waited until we were in our 30s or 40s, and it still was an exercise in undaunted courage, because you could lose your job, your friends, your family.
That is not to say, unequivocally, that coming out has gotten any easier. It is still arduous and takes guts. There are still familial considerations to think of, reactions of straight and cisgender friends and colleagues, and the worry about what people at the school or the office might think. All of these variables are palpable, and unfortunately, in many parts of the country, people still curse the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (and most still don't understand queer or nonbinary).
We wrote last month about the shocking fact that as of early March, there have been 71 anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures around the country, along with 37 bills that target the LGBTQ+ population overall. When someone who is considering coming out, reads about these would-be hate laws, it most certainly gives them pause. That’s why we should never take coming out for granted, because it still can be risky.
What’s worse are the unending news stories about teens and young individuals who are bullied, and adults who have lost their jobs, all because they revealed their sexuality or gender. Last summer, the Supreme Court ruled that workers cannot be fired for being gay, bi, or transgender, which means that people are still being fired for being queer, especially when they work in religious spaces or with the public. And, teen suicides due to bullying are all still tragically too common.
As a sports fan, I am still rattled about the experience of Michael Sam, who before he was reluctantly drafted by the NFL, announced he was gay. I have friends who say he was cut in training camp because, “He wasn’t good enough.” Really? Sam, while at the University of Missouri, was named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, along with C. J. Mosley of the University of Alabama. Mosley has been playing in the NFL since he was drafted, unlike Sam.
Sam also had to figure out how he was going to make a living after he was exiled, because football had been his life. He had the resolve to come out, and was an inspiration to so many people, but when he didn’t make it in the NFL, it sent a clear message. Coming out doesn’t always work out, it may affect your livelihood, and it can still cause adverse reactions. Uttering the words, “I’m gay,” is fraught with unknowns and repercussions.
Colton Underwood got to play in the NFL, because he remained in the closet, and that was his decision. After his football career, he made a name for himself as a reality star with ABC’s franchise series The Bachelor. Underwood was truly acting as a straight man in this role. He ended up with a girlfriend, Cassie Randolph, who took out a restraining order against him last September.
Randolph accused Underwood of placing a tracker on her car, sending her and her friends anonymous threatening texts, and menacingly standing outside her window late at night. I wrote once about how remaining in the closet can lead people to destructive behavior.
Being closeted is not an excuse for Underwood’s harassment. What he was alleged to have done was hurtful and illegal. But one thing is for sure. The accusations meant that Underwood was finished in the world of straight, reality TV.
When I saw his interview with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, I was initially happy for him. The rumors have been around for a while about his sexuality, so for a brief period of time, I felt relieved for him to finally be telling his truth. We all know coming out is not easy, and maybe it was somewhat difficult for him; however, we didn’t know the whole story.
No sooner had I sympathized with Underwood when news followed after his interview that he was on to his next venture in reality TV, documenting his coming out journey for a Netflix series. Then, I began to question his motives. I texted a well-respected PR person I know with a link to the Netflix story and a “SMH.” We both agreed Underwood’s reason for coming out appeared unseemly.
The entire arrangement with Roberts was nothing more than a PR gambit, a tease, for his new reality show, which will put him back in the news when it premieres. The interview was all part of a big plan. A push. A way to generate publicity for the real story, which is that Netflix series, and Underwood’s next lucrative way to cash in on his celebrity.
What Underwood did with his coming out story, and the revelation about his sexuality, was contrived and motivated by money. Plain and simple. Compare it to Sam. He came out to make a difference. Underwood came out to make a buck, and LGBTQ+ people are beginning to take notice.
When we ran a story about Underwood’s new series, I took time to read the social media comments around the news, and folks are on to him. Members of our community feel that something we consider to be sacrosanct, coming out, is being used to help him make more money, and accumulate more fame — options not available to 99.9 percent of those who came out of the closet.
Coming out is reverential, and honest. We are exposing our true selves and our courage, ripping off the veneer of fakery, and having candid conversations about who we really are. With Underwood’s scheme, he exposed himself as underhanded, less than brave. He put on another veneer of fakery and was dishonest in not disclosing his motivation to come out with Roberts. And most of us know by now that reality shows are far from realistic; some may not be scripted, but they are all produced and orchestrated to maximize drama and hook viewers.
What could he have done differently? For starters, he could have leveled with Roberts — and us — that he was doing a reality show about his experience. But, even if he did that, I’d probably still send a “SMH” text. At best, he should have posted a heartfelt letter on Instagram, for example, announced that he was gay, and come clean about his show.
But no, that would not have been as melodramatic as speaking to a morning talk show host who also happens to be gay. Lights, camera, action and mega-publicity. Tune-in to hear Colton Underwood who has not one, but two secrets! We were duped, and so was Roberts if she didn’t know about Underwood’s next career move. And ABC was tone deaf if they didn’t consider the harassment allegations against him, as well as Netflix. But the appeal of sensationalizing the coming out of an ex-NFL player and “Bachelor” was all too alluring, truth and sensitivity be damned.
Underwood was blatantly phony when he crisscrossed The Bachelor franchise as a straight man (something former Real Housewife Carole Radziwill pointed out). Will all the women who fell in love with him watching the show follow him as a gay man? What’s in it for them? Most likely nothing but resentment. Fans of “Bachelor Nation” have started a petition on change.org calling on Netflix to cancel the series because of all the harassment allegations against Underwood.
Underwood has failed women and the LGBTQ+ community by deriding our coming out process, particularly for those of us who took on great peril to be ourselves. Who among us thought that when we came out, we’d have a golden parachute waiting for us? That coming out was the road to new found success? How many of us believed that by exposing ourselves, we were moving on to stardom simply because we announced we were gay?
And for all of us who labored hard to come out, will we want to watch someone like Underwood act his way through our revered process, via multiple episodes, with multiple takes to “get it right?” Garnering lots of publicity and lots of money along the way? What’s in it for us? Or rather, what’s in it for him?
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.