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Tom Daley and Maria Bello: Coming Out as None of the Above

12/03/2013 11:46 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Nineteen-year-old British diving champion Tom Daley opened up to the world yesterday in a sweet YouTube video, explaining that he had something to say: He's been in a relationship with "a guy" who makes him feel "so happy, so safe." He also added, in a line that's been criticized mostly for its first two words, "Of course, I still fancy girls."

A few days earlier, actress and Prisoners star Maria Bello, on another continent, and a generation away at the age of 46, wrote a detailed, heartfelt New York Times op-ed explaining that she's "romantically ... involved with a woman," though she's been in relationships with men, and that she had mildly struggled with how to explain it to her 12-year-son, who eventually responded, "Mom, love is love...."

These two revelations have confounded a lot of people, and it's been fascinating to see how the public figures' planned and controlled but nonetheless emotional announcements were received like Rorschach tests. These two broke from the recent trend of celebrities coming out quietly, which I've written about previously, like actor Jim Parsons casually mentioning it in an interview, or Anderson Cooper sending an email to Andrew Sullivan. In those and other cases, like that of the Food Network's Anne Burrell, the individuals in question had personally dealt with their sexual orientation long ago -- and clearly defined it -- and it seemed more like they wanted to convey that they'd never been in the closet (though they had), perhaps embarrassed by that perception, and now just wanting to quietly make things clear.

But Daley and Bello both made splashy announcements that did anything but downplay their truths. They were far from quiet, and far from neatly defined. Around the world over the last 24 hours, headlines about each of these very different celebrities have declared one or the other "gay," or declared either or both of them "bisexual." Yet neither of these celebrities actually announced an orientation of any kind. Make no mistake: They did come out -- contrary to those who've claimed otherwise -- but simply as being in same-sex relationships right now, and as having attractions to, or having been involved with, people of the opposite gender.

This was very new, and very different from the "I don't like labels" attitude of some celebrities of yesteryear, like Michael Stipe or Morrissey in the '80s, or TV stars like Sean Hayes in the '90s, who were often just trying to keep the press at bay at a time when they believed that coming out would have alienated fans. Not only did they reject any term to describe themselves, but they never talked of same-sex relations ever, keeping it in the realm of the private. In most of these cases, particularly in the cases of actors and musicians, the individuals in question were concerned for their careers. And yet, many didn't want to lie outright, like Hollywood celebrities who are closeted and often mocked. "I don't like to define myself" was convenient, even utopian and cool.

But Daley and Bello aren't even saying that much, perhaps because, in the end, that was always a defensive stand (wrapped up in hipness), and both of them are far from defensive. We really don't know if they don't like labels or not, though Bello offers us a bit more information on this, calling herself a "whatever" at one point in her essay. More importantly, not only are they not hiding their same-sex romantic involvements, but they're shouting them from the rooftops. Making a YouTube video titled "Something I want to say..." -- which would go viral in an instant -- as Daley did, or writing an op-ed in The New York Times with the headline "Coming Out as a Modern Family," as Bello did, is about as out and proud regarding a same-sex relationship as you can get. They just rejected, for the moment, choosing an identity -- and either of them could change that in an interview, or a video, or a tweet tomorrow.

It was inaccurate to label either of them "gay," and much of the media was guilty of that. (And I tweeted a New York Daily News story whose headline called Bello "gay" before I'd fully read the Times op-ed, so I'm just as guilty.) And although some bisexual activists might disagree, it's equally presumptuous to say they're bisexual, even if the evidence and their statements point in that direction, until they say so themselves.

In Daley's case, his stating, "Of course, I still fancy girls," is problematic. The "of course" implies that the only right way to be is to still like girls, and that being totally gay is not cool. But let's cut him some slack. He's 19 and figuring himself out.

Bello, having lived a fuller life, has thought this through quite deeply, as evidenced in her beautifully written essay. She fell in love with her best friend, and she's not set on any terms, even the term "partner."

This brings us back to the uproar over actress Cynthia Nixon commenting that being a lesbian is, for her, "a choice," given that she's been involved with men previously, rather than simply calling herself bisexual. And it also brings up New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's wife Chirlane McCray explaining that she was lesbian-identified until she met Bill and fell in love with him, though she hasn't called herself bisexual.

I'm not suggesting that we're in a time when people can slough off identity and artificial boundaries and labels. All of us who are LGBT were labeled with ugly slurs by our enemies, after all, which is what forced us to choose our own words to label ourselves. And that's not ending anytime soon. Judging from the horrendous attacks on Daley on Twitter, if you admit to sucking dick, even in the most overt way, you're still "a gay" and a "faggot" and a "fag" no matter what you call or don't call yourself.

But looking at all the recent comings out among celebrities and the different trends that we're seeing, Daley and Bello provide yet another way for public figures to get there and announce who they are (even if they're not exactly choosing what category they fit in). And that gives young people who may be LGBT even more options when they look out at the world than painfully trying to be straight and live a lie in the closet.