THE BLOG
01/02/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Robin Roberts Comes Out, and Out Roll the 'Gay' Labels

Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts publicly acknowledged her long-time girlfriend for the first time on Sunday, in a note published via her Facebook fan page. Not too long after, news outlets pounced on the story.

In fact, many people and reports labeled Roberts' coming out as a "gay" one. Lots of 'em.

That may have been an unfortunate misstep likely made in haste or for lack of awareness -- and it's becoming a bit too common.

It's a misstep in affixing identity labels to public figures who disclose same-sex relationships, but don't necessarily say they are gay, bi, lesbian, same-gender-loving, pansexual or one of numerous other identifiers used to describe an individual's sexual orientation. Heck, maybe the person even wishes to NOT give it a label.

Taking another look at Roberts' note, she doesn't say how she identifies. Here's the detail we actually get from the post, in which she expressed gratitude for support during her bout with a rare blood disease. I've added emphasis to this excerpt for clarity's sake:

"I am grateful for my entire family, my long time girlfriend, Amber, and friends as we prepare to celebrate a glorious new year together."

Nowhere in that note does it say "I'm gay."

Even remarks from an ABC News spokesperson didn't give Roberts a label, but offered further confirmation of Roberts' 10-year relationship with a woman.

Sure, some of the reports say that Roberts' friends and co-workers have known about her relationship for years. But that doesn't tell us how the writers arrived to a label, or even if that was confirmed by those who already knew.

And, ultimately, has Roberts stated how she identifies? At the time of this post, and with the details made public, that answer is no.

Her public disclosure was done in a low-key manner, similar to CNN's Anderson Cooper, who came out via email in July 2012 to writer Andrew Sullivan. But that's where most of the similarity ends. In the email, he said: "The fact is, I'm gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn't be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud."

Emphasis in the quote is mine, and for good reason. He said the words himself in the note, describing his sexuality on his terms.

A label may simplify things for a headline, for search engine optimization or even when sharing the information with others, but that does not mean it's an accurate label. And, even worse, doing so without hearing it directly from the person coming out erases any nuance and other possibilities for how that person chooses to describe their sexuality.

It's a sad trend from recent months, including when Tom Daley and Maria Bello publicly acknowledged their same-sex relationships. It even happened in 2012 after Frank Ocean came out via Tumblr.

When Daley shared his story on YouTube, the Olympic diver said, "Come spring this year, my life changed massively when I met someone," adding, "And that someone is a guy ... Of course, I still fancy girls, but right now I'm dating a guy and I couldn't be happier."

And when Bello penned a New York Times op-ed about "Coming Out as a Modern Family," the actress described herself as a "whatever." "Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or share a child with them, "love is love."

Neither Daley or Bello described themselves as gay, but that didn't stop many people from labeling them as such -- a decision rightfully criticized, even as indicative of stigma against bisexuals and others who don't call themselves gay or lesbian.

As for Frank Ocean, the Grammy Award-winning singer dismissed being labeled bisexual during a December 2012 interview with GQ, saying he didn't need a label for his letter to have impact.

"I'll respectfully say that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences, and the same sentiment that I have towards genres of music, I have towards a lot of labels and boxes and shit," he said, later adding, "You can't feel a box. You can't feel a label. Don't get caught up in that shit."

But, unfortunately, many of us get caught up in labeling people -- people like Robin Roberts -- when they disclose any type of non-hetero relationship or feeling they've had.

That labeling takes away the right for the individual to determine for themselves how they wish to identify, how they wish for their sexuality to be described, or how they choose to discuss their love (or sex, for that matter). It can be incredibly offensive and even dehumanizing for many people who fall on the LGBT spectrum.

Instead of assuming what you don't know for sure, just ask. If you can't get some kind of identifier, describe it the best way you can. That is, without oversimplification or reduction to a label just for the sake of it.

It's encouraging that a number of news sources didn't do that with Robin Roberts. Perhaps we can all consider this when engaging these types of discussions.

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