The SMH’s Rebel Wilson Disaster Is A Perfect Example Of Queer Blindfolding
How the illusion of a post-queer society let actor Rebel Wilson down.
It’s been nearly two weeks since we heard the Sydney Morning Herald had a hand in making the actor Rebel Wilson reveal she was dating another woman. But as the news cycle swiftly barrels on, there are questions that continue to linger.
Namely, how could reporter Andrew Hornery and editor Bevan Shields — who are both gay — not understand that threatening to reveal a celebrity’s first same-sex relationship is an inherently harmful idea? How could they have been so blind?
I’ve just read this @smh piece 3 times to make sure that I wasn’t misreading. The publication messaged Rebel Wilson saying they would out her in 2 days – and is now complaining that she chose to announce her relationship with a woman herself. Quite astonishing. pic.twitter.com/qiPZkYFmka
— Megha Mohan (@meghamohan) June 11, 2022
That’s the theme that kept sticking out to me: sustained, wilful blindness. Blindness to the fact that we continue to inhabit a culture where queer people are marginalised, regardless of how many legal gains may have been made.
As both Hornery and Shields pushed out their articles over the weekend, at first furiously agreeing with each other before conceding that some harm may have been done, there was a common through-line: Both went out of their way to use non-gendered language. Rebel was simply in a “new relationship”; Ramona Agruma was her “new partner”, they were simply trying to break the news of this “celebrity romance”.
Both men seemed desperate to ignore the elephant in the room — Rebel Wilson, an actress who most people know as straight, was in a same-sex relationship. And Hornery’s email, regardless of what he intended, threatened to out her.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the problem of colour-blindness; the people who insist they “don’t see race”, a narrative captured in the platitude, “there’s only one race, the human race”. It’s this same spirit that permeated the Sydney Morning Herald‘s recent festival of cluelessness, but this time, it wasn’t colour blindness, but its LGBTIQ analogue: queer blindfolding.
What Is Queer Blindfolding?
In the way that colour-blindness perpetuates racism by denying the existence of white privilege, queer blindfolding is the process of perpetuating homophobia by not acknowledging it exists. The concept was coined by US researchers Richard Shin and Lance Smith, who define it as “well-intentioned heterosexual identifying individuals that results in the disappearing of queer identities”. And while straight people probably thinks that they’re doing a good thing by ignoring a person’s sexuality — we’re all just people, are we not? — the narrative comes with pernicious consequences.
Namely, adopting the ideology of ‘queer blindfolding’ can result in minimising or even denying the marginalisation that is experienced by those who identify as queer. And in my opinion, it is this wilfully blind way of looking at the world that has contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald unknowingly threatening Wilson with an ultimatum.
Queer Blindfolding In The Sydney Morning Herald
Both Andrew Hornery and Bevan Shields used language that indicated that they were fans of this school of thought. Consider the following turns of phrase: “[We] asked Wilson if she wished to comment about her new partner,” wrote Bevan Shields in his initial supportive response to Andrew Hornery’s first article’. “We would have asked the same questions had Wilson’s new partner been a man.”
Similarly, in Hornery’s (now deleted) initial article, he was at a loss as to why a woman who “previously used to brag about her handsome ex-boyfriend” wouldn’t do the same with her same girlfriend. “Of course, who anyone dates is their business, but Wilson happily fed such prurient interest when she had a hunky boyfriend on her arm,” he adds.
Here, both Shields and Hornery are taking the bizarre stance that when you’re a woman, having a girlfriend is equally as socially acceptable as having a boyfriend.
And that, in a nutshell, is clear blindfolding: wilfully ignoring the heterosexism that we swim in every day.
While Shin and Smith point out that heterosexual attitudes toward LGBTIQ folks are generally improving, we’re not exactly in some post-gay utopia. Heterosexuality is obviously the dominant sexual orientation in our culture. Take, for example, the fact that most love stories in our culture involve cis-gendered men and cis-gendered women; the fact that we assume people are straight by default; and that a fear of abuse still means that many queer people hide their sexuality at work.
Or the teacher who was sacked because of their sexuality in 2021, or the constant targeting of trans people during the lead-up to the federal election. Or the current horrendous discourse around trans participation in elite swimming. Just the simple fact that straight people don’t need to ‘come out’ tells you that straight people and queer people are obviously not on a level playing field.
And yet, we get Hornery coming out with the astonishing take that “thanks to decades of battling for equality — sexual orientation is no longer something to be hidden, even in Hollywood,” adding that “same-sex marriage is legal in many parts of the world,” as though Wilson, by not publicly coming out to the entire world right away, is being overly dramatic or creating a problem that isn’t there.
But Aren’t These Men Also Queer?
They are. Both reporter Andrew Hornery and editor Bevan Shields identify as gay men. But while Shin and Smith say that it’s heterosexual identifying people who are prone to queer blindfolding, queer folks aren’t immune to taking on the same.
In particular, studies have found it’s not uncommon for gay men who are white, cis-gendered, and affluent to use queer blindfolding as a narrative strategy. Those who inhabit other marginalised identities, though — queer women of colour, for example — tend to “consider their queerness within the context of a matrix of domination”. As such, people like Shields and Hornery may not realise that queerness in other bodies unlike theirs has different implications.
That’s where the importance of intersectionality comes in — a concept that “describes the way that systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination ‘intersect’ to create unique dynamics and effects”. While Rebel is white, she deals with the added marginalisation of being a woman — plus, she’s dealt with fatphobia in the past.
A Final Word
The reason that Hornery and Shields went so wrong with Rebel Wilson is simple: they assumed that homophobia was an artefact of the past. In doing so, they ended up causing harm to a person who, like everyone, has a right to come out on her own terms.
We’ve heard little from Rebel Wilson herself about the situation, but she wrote on Twitter that it was a “very hard situation” and she was “trying to handle it with grace”. But she never should have had to deal with this in the first place, with grace or otherwise.
Perhaps the current trend of ‘epistemic deference’ has something to do with this: the idea that people who inhabit the same marginalised identities have each other’s back. But like white supremacy, which no longer needs white people for it to function, we’ve seen that homophobia, too — it no longer requires straight folks to thrive.
Reena Gupta is Junkee’s culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Future Publishing, Getty Images