What TV Gets Right About Coming Out

Most coming out stories on TV follow a four-part trajectory: the discovery by a formerly straight character of new feelings for someone of the same gender, that character grappling with how these feelings fundamentally change her self-identity, the coming out moment, and then the fallout of coming out. Writers, most of them heterosexual, have done an excellent job of translating this arc—which is the same process that normally happens in the real world—onto the screen and then writing a coming out speech that accurately represents what real life individuals say when coming out.

Dr. Erica Hahn’s coming out speech, cited at the beginning of this article, is an example of a speech that references the discovery of new feelings. A character is probably more likely to focus on the discovery phase if the self-identity phase is comparatively not a big issue. For example, on “Wynonna Earp,” Waverly Earp is able to “come out” to lesbian character Nicole Haught with relative ease because, despite an allusion to worrying about what people think, she appears to experience limited cognitive dissonance about being gay or having romantic feelings for a woman.

“You’re a lesbian, not a unicorn, right?”

Perhaps a slightly more common theme in the coming out speech is the character discussing coming to terms with not being straight and the ramifications for her identity and life. Often this speech entails verbalizing her understanding of how internalized homophobia has led to years of denial and self-repression.

Speeches about self-identity tend to be more emotionally charged than speeches about discovering new feelings because they speak to the tectonic shift in understanding about her core identity that character has had to undergo as part of coming to terms with being gay. The speech by Naomi Campbell, although not a traditional coming out speech, during the last episode of series four of “Skins” heartbreakingly captures this internal war:

“I’ve loved you from the first time I saw you; I think I was 12. It took me…three years to pluck up the courage to speak to you. I was so scared of the way I felt; you know, loving a girl, that I became a sarcastic bitch just to make it feel normal. I screwed guys to make it go away, but it didn’t work. When we got together it scared the shit out of me because you were the one person who could ruin my life. I pushed you away.”

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Both themes are true to life, although for many a simple, “Yep, I’m gay” suffices in multiple situations. Speaking of Ellen, the character Ellen Morgan’s coming out as a lesbian on “The Ellen Show” in 1997, and all of the discussion of sexual orientation and coming out in “The Puppy Episode” and after, is an excellent encapsulation of the coming out process.

“You know how you, you know, you said in the room, you know, that you thought that maybe I was, you know, and I said no, no, no, no, no, well um I was thinking about it, you know, and I think that maybe I’m, I am…I guess what I’m trying to say is I did get the joke about the toaster oven…Um, this is…this is so hard. But I…I think I’ve realized that I am… I can’t even say the word. Why can’t I say the word? I mean, why can’t I just say… I mean what is wrong? Why do I have to be so ashamed? Why can’t I just say the truth? I mean, be who I am. I’m 35 years old. I’m so afraid to tell people. I mean, I just…Susan, I’m gay. That felt great. That felt so great. And it felt so loud.”

Of all the coming out storylines that have aired on TV around the world, it’s impossible to say that any were portrayed inaccurately, even the soap opera ones where storylines are fantastically outlandish. Because everyone’s coming out experience is different, there are no “right” or “wrong” depictions on screen.

For some, coming out is easy and they are met with open arms. For others, it takes many years and requires substantial pain and grief. An individual could have spent decades dating or marrying the opposite sex, or knew at age four and never looked back.

Just as our community’s experiences are diverse, coming out storylines are diverse, and they resonate with viewers for any number of reasons: the stories are similar to their own experiences, or to what they wish had happened, or they’re just interesting in general.

One thing that can separate an okay coming out storyline from a great one, however, is the heart written into the storyline. The best TV coming out stories are enacted by characters who make us want to root for them. So who are we rooting for in 2018?