Why Coming Out Still Matters — Especially If You’re ‘The Bachelor’
I don’t like The Bachelor. Just not my thing. I think I have seen one episode, and I cringed. The speed-date nature of it, the ticking clock that you have to get together at the end, the now iconic roses. I’m good, thanks. That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t know what the show is, how many people watch it loyally (over 5M each episode now in its 25th season), and the power that it has in our popular culture. It’s a reality show about the eternal quest for love. Nothing makes better storytelling for television.
That said, this morning was an emotional scroll through my Twitter. Colton Underwood’s story (he’s gay) caught my eye — and not just because he’s incredibly handsome and happens to have a porn-star name.* He told Robin Roberts that the pandemic has been a time of great reflection, and that this is a part of him that he is ready to share. It was an incredible testament to this moment’s great power to unearth our truths. Billions of people around the globe have been forced to stop and think, as the daily routines that distract us disappeared overnight — for now a full year.
As a gay man, coming out stories hold a very special and intimate place in my heart. As Colton’s interview with Robin Roberts played, still bleary-eyed pre-coffee, I was transfixed. I came out at 19 years-old, in the fall of 1997, now almost 24 years ago. As I bared my soul to my Italian-American family, my voice did the same thing his did: quiver. My skin did the same: smiled instinctively while it shook. I still remember my own very audible swallow. Colton Underwood nervously gulped on Twitter, and I stopped breathing.
Things have changed since I came out. Now in 2021, Ellen Page is Elliot, LGBTQ has more letters than we can seemingly keep up with, and someone somewhere is doing an Instagram Live to announce that they identify as non-binary. I recently spent a month in bed with COVID-19 watching every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race — 13 seasons of over-the-top drag lip-sync contests now easily accessible on my TV. It is a brave new world two decades after Will & Grace and six years after the Obergfell decision that made marriage equality the law of the land in the United States. Every step of the way has been a hard-won victory and a deep breath for the roughly 18 million Americans who identify as LGBTQ.
And yet, in countless places across the country where black-trans-lives are not the brunch or Zoom conversation du jour (let’s be clear: they matter), plain ol’ coming-out-as-gay still has huge value. Young people are watching all of us all the time on every platform — many in states where conversion therapy is still legal (thousands are still subjected to it). Millions around the world are watching, too, young and old, closeted and out. The Bachelor has franchise productions in 37 international markets. Millions of LGBTQ people would kill to live in a country progressive enough to air a coming-out story on national television.
The pandemic and the Trump years may have tested our notion that the United States is progressive — what an eye-popping time it has been — but we can never discount how far we have come and who is watching. Colton’s story is important because, undeniably, it has already helped someone somewhere. And it’s a reminder for all of us that no matter your personal circumstances (age, race, ethnicity, statehood, celebrity) it is just plain hard to do. There is great anxiety. There is great pain. And there is great risk. Even in 2021.
*Yes, I have been made aware since publishing that he was apparently a total asshole on the show and that there is a Netflix special coming (cha-ching). I still think his coming out has great value. Not every gay is a great human, unfortunately, and not every reality show is reality, but every one who comes out publicly helps free the heart of someone else somewhere else.