First published in The Independent 18th February 2014

On Friday, Ellen Page came out publicly at the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference in Las Vegas. The star of Juno‘s eight-minute long speech contained a critique of Hollywood’s repressive standards and a mention of her own struggle and the suffering she underwent while keeping her sexuality a secret.

Her strength and bravery in coming out is not, for me at least, in question. It’s inspiring to have high profile actors, musicians, sports stars and entrepreneurs come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. It makes being part of the LGBTQ community feel less lonely, and not something that should be hidden because you’re afraid of mockery, of not being selected for jobs or of losing friends, contacts and status. The normalization of homosexuality by famous names even makes it harder for young people to bully their LGBTQ peers. I wish Ellen Page had been out when I was a scared twelve-year-old who knew she had to get a boyfriend to fit in and stop the taunts of ‘ugly lesbian bitch’.Jane Czyzselska writing for the Guardian yesterday is of the opinion that Page’s disclosure“shouldn’t really be news”. I fear that commentators who wish to deny the importance of Page’s speech are rather missing the point. Page’s coming out should be news, as long as we live in a world where homophobia still exists. It should be news because she is giving hope to all of those who are still in the closet, still “lying by omission” and still too afraid to embrace who they are. If we skip over Page’s speech as unimportant, as an irrelevant disclosure, we are downgrading her bravery and failing to recognise how valuable it is for the LGBTQ community when high profile persons decide to be publicly out.One of the most interesting parts of Page’s declaration was when she addressed the “crushing standards” that Hollywood places on all of us in terms of beauty and success. She mentioned a recent E! article where she was criticised for wearing sweatpants. The writer asked “why does this petite beauty insist upon dressing like a massive man?” and Page answered “because I like to be comfortable”. Why was the E! piece written and published in the first place? It is, of course, irrelevant celebrity gossip. Who cares what Page wears when she’s off to the gym? But it’s also an example of the pernicious and nasty way that magazines, newspapers (you know who you are) and blogs penalise female celebrities for their appearance, twenty four hours, seven days a week. This is a highly gendered form of criticism. E! shamed Page for ‘looking like a man’, as if femininity is something you can measure by the kind of trousers someone is wearing, as if there are concrete rules for how you should look and behave when you belong to a particular gender.

The front page of The Sun today shows a picture of Angelina Jolie wearing a tuxedo. The headline? ‘Brad and Mangelina’. The headline is crass and insulting, as if Angelina has somehow transgressed by wearing a garment that is typically favoured by men, instead of the gown that she ‘should’ have worn. As Simon Amstell says in his stand-up show ‘Numb’, “maybe your idea of what a girl is supposed to be is quite restrictive”.

In my last piece for Independent Voices, I criticised Shakira and Rihanna’s faux lesbian performance in Shakira’s latest music video. A commenter below wasn’t particularly keen on what I’d written, and stated that I ‘looked like a lesbian’. I think this was meant to insult me, but it provides a great example of how our society likes to shout women down and shame them. Making light of what a woman wears, what she looks like or how ‘feminine’ she is perceived to be isn’t okay. Maybe we should stop reading the appearance-focused, mean-minded gossip columns and allowing their influence to encourage us to believe that it is normal to constantly police ourselves and our bodies. Wear those sweatpants Ellen; I’m really glad you’ve decided to come out.

Posted by:harrietpwilliamson