What Do Celebrities Owe the LGBT Community?

After the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, hundreds of celebrities took to social media—mainly Twitter—to express horror and condolences to the LGBT community. A few A-Listers did not initially and were called out by some media outlets for it, notably Taylor Swift, Drake, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. Time used the outcry over these celebrities’ lack of immediate response to put forth a suggestion that some celebrities have a social responsibility to respond to events like this. Social responsibility in this usage can be defined as the obligation of an individual to act for the benefit of society at large. 

It seems, however, that rather than immediately foisting social responsibility upon any and all celebrities, we should instead ask: what can or should we realistically expect from celebrities? After all, is it really a question of their obligations or our expectations?   

Demi Lovato and Nick JonasDemi Lovato and Nick Jonas Kick Off the 2016 Honda Civic Tour: Future Now - OrlandoPhoto by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Philymack

Our world is quickly losing what had once been a solid wall between the personal and the public. As celebrities have joined social media and created shared spaces (of a sort) with fans, it has stripped them of some of their privacy and opened the door for the public to develop expectations for how they should respond to major events like Orlando. At times it seems the public wields these expectations—the celebrity shall speak out on social issues and national tragedies—like an unspoken social contract, then punishes celebrities seen to be in breach of that contact, even if they did not know the terms. One might reasonably argue that celebrities who have engaged with fans have a duty to act because they consciously sought out this emotional proximity—they are aware of the contract because they signed it themselves—but it’s more complicated than that.

Obviously, the LGBT community is overjoyed when celebrities come out in support of LGBT issues, and we deeply appreciate their solidarity with us in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, but to play devil’s advocate: why absolutely must a celebrity Tweet about a social issue like gay marriage or a national tragedy like Orlando? Why are we using 150 character Tweets as a barometer for the morality and empathy of a celebrity?

For the record, in 2015, Swift was named the most charitable celebrity of the year by Dosomething.org for the fourth year in a row, topping celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Does waiting a week to tweet about Orlando somehow tarnish her credentials as a humanitarian? Although to be fair, we do and probably can reasonably expect more of a response from LGBT celebrities or celebrities who have huge LGBT followings because we expect those people will feel more social responsibility. Quid pro quo, if a celebrity has benefitted economically from the community, the community expects a greater degree of emotional support in return, and that seems to be fair.

Lady GagaNation Mourns Victims Of Worst Mass Shooting In U.S. HistoryPhoto by Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A celebrity should have the right to opt out of responding on social media without having to justify this action. For example, if Cher or Melissa Etheridge, to name two of the biggest queer icons, had remained silent about Orlando (they did not), it shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that they felt the loss less keenly than if they’d posted 140 characters and a crying emoji. Grief expressed privately is no less sincere than grief shared using a social media platform even if that celebrity had previously been active on social media.

Furthermore, if a celebrity believes that she or he can add nothing to the national conversation and that to say anything would simply be superfluous or worse, self-aggrandizing, then that should also be an acceptable reason to remain silent. Singer Nick Jonas was criticized for showing up at an Orlando vigil at the Stonewall Inn because, to quote the Time article, “his presence, in the midst of a promotional campaign for his new album, could be seen as precluding an actual gay entertainer from speaking.” Sometimes we punish celebrities who don’t seem to be supportive of our community, but also punish those who are trying to be supportive.

Nick JonasNick Jonas speaks. NY governor Andrew Cuomo & NYC mayor BillPhoto by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

If we expect celebrities to respond on social media to social issues like gay marriage or a national tragedy like Orlando, then will we one day begin to develop expectations for what, exactly, they should say? Is a one-word post or Tweet—“Sobbing.” @TheEllenShow—sufficient? Does the celebrity get “bonus points” if she or he also uses the rainbow flag filter over her or his user picture?

Right now, the public writ large doesn’t seem terribly discriminating when it comes to social media content. A celebrity who posts instructions for how to contact an Orlando blood bank (for example, @Lauren_Collins, who played Paige Michalchuk from DeGrassi: The Next Generation) is generally viewed the same as one who posts a generic condolence to the families of the deceased victims (such as @MarcAnthony) and is viewed the same as one who talks about feeling personally sad (@johnlegend). The box is checked yes or no for responding to the input, but the content is not judged for “quality.”

The question of social responsibility and our expectations for a celebrity’s social responsibility is more than just Twitter responses to Orlando, however. The Orlando shooting simply showcases in macro some of the same social responsibility questions that exist on a smaller scale. For example, lesbian and bi women often hope straight actresses in a gay role will respond publicly and favorably on LGBT issues, become educated about our issues, and be very engaged with the lesbian and bi fan base for the duration of the role.

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Although this hope seems entirely reasonable to us, from an outside perspective, it is transcendent of what is, to the actress, one role in a career of many roles. An actress who plays a police officer, for example, probably does not face the same expectations to tweet positively about police issues and engage with female police officers who are fans on social media. Many straight actresses taking lesbian roles don’t even know they’re stepping into a situation that will demand they assess how much social responsibility they feel until they’re well into filming because they’ve never faced a parallel situation.

That sense of social responsibility is a sliding scale of involvement. For movie roles, for example, actresses seem to engage less with the gay community than for TV roles. The role is one and done. In contrast, for actresses who play a lesbian character over multiple TV seasons, there are likely to be multiple interviews and chances to engage with fans on social media and at TV conventions, more time to learn about the LGBT community. The actresses of Orange is the New Black, for example, ride a float at the NYC Pride Parade. Katie Stevens of Faking It was on The Gay Women’s Channel’s Faking It Friday (by Skype) and tweeted them an admission that she’d seen all their episodes.

So to the question of what should we realistically expect from celebrities as regards social responsibility, there’s no one-size fits all answer, but we should take care to temper our criticism because we don’t know the circumstances behind their decision to act or not act. And for celebrities considering how to balance social responsibility, perhaps the answer is: more is more. There is all but no cost to actresses to show support for the gay community. It doesn’t require standing in line for hours to give blood in Orlando, or to pass out food and drinks to those who are. These days it is often just posting a few words of encouragement on social media every once in a while.