Coming out stories are a backbone of queer storytelling. The nerves, the sweaty palms, the fear of what comes next. It’s also some of the moments that have most connected us to our favorite television and film characters. The reason we stuck with them (or their TV shows!) for so long — maybe even longer than some of their shows deserved it. The quotes that we repeat to ourselves in our quietest moments. Places of recognition, passed around as clips online even if we haven’t seen the movie. Scenes that wear out our YouTube queues. Can anyone ever really forget Santana sitting down with her abuela?
So for this Coming Out Day, the Autostraddle TV Team came together to ask: What’s a coming out scene that you’ll never forget?
My favorite coming out scene isn’t a coming out at all. The queer character does not say, “I’m gay.wp_postsShe doesn’t have to. She’s not able to and she doesn’t have to. Her mom just guesses. That terrible moment of suspense while you wait for the person’s response is spared. Her mom just gives her support.
I’m referring, of course, to the porch scene in Kissing Jessica Stein. Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) has ended her relationship with Helen (Heather Juergensen) because she’s too afraid to tell her family about her queerness. It just doesn’t fit in with her view of herself, in her plan. So far her mom (Tovah Feldshuh) has been portrayed as an annoying stereotypical Jewish mother. Jessica’s perfection is likely a product of her mother’s critique. But here her mother tells a story about how this perfectionism prevented Jessica from acting in a play as a child. She’s encouraging Jessica to let go of the self-critical nature she herself likely instilled. Finally, her mother says, “I think–wp_postsShe stops to collect her emotions before continuing. “I think she’s a very nice girl.wp_postsJessica turns to her mother in surprise — surprise at the knowledge, surprise at the embrace.
Tovah Feldsuh’s performance is unbelievable in these four minutes. She shows why she’s a legend. And she provides a queer audience with the ultimate fantasy: a world where we don’t have to come out — where we can just be seen.
Of all the coming out scenes I have watched and written about over the years, nothing is threaded in my memory like Emily Fitch coming out on Skins — first to her friends — JJ and Thomas — and then to her parents and twin sister, Katie.
Emily Fitch is this adorable little button of a human being, the counterpoint to Katie’s brashness, boldness, and rule-breaking. But something inside her snaps when she finally starts pursuing a relationship with Naomi, the girl she’s been crushing on since she first started developing crushes. They’ve kissed in a club, in a bouncy castle at a birthday party, down by the lake before jumping in. Emily blurts it out kind of broadly to JJ: “I like girls. I like sex with girls. Hard nipples, soft thighs. I like tits and fanny, you know?” And of course he passes right out, his head hitting the ground before she even gets out the word “nipples.” To Thomas, she simply sobs, “I’m gay,” to which he replies, “That’s fine. Should we get a cab? I don’t think this bus is coming.” But with her family, it’s all about Naomi: “Her name’s Naomi, she’s rather beautiful — so, I was nailing her.” That’s why she looks like a mess, makeup all over the place, hair going everywhichway. No, she wasn’t fighting. She was shagging. A girl. That belligerence is a kind of power for someone who’s been stuck inside her sister’s shadow her entire life, bulldozed by her parents, and I’ll never forget Kat Prescott’s voice purring it out with a kind of content fury.
The first person who comes to mind for me and this prompt is Alex Danvers from Supergirl, but the truth is I’ve already written about her. Like, so much. So instead I’m going to go with not my all-time favorite coming out journey, but my first favorite coming out story: Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because even though I would go to hell and back for Buffy Summers, the truth is, she wasn’t always the best friend to Willow. She would often get sucked up in some supernatural scheme and overlook her number two. But she always showed up when it mattered; sometimes a little late, but she always showed up.
In this moment, the moment that Willow was finally so overwhelmed by her complicated mess of feelings for Tara and Oz, she has to tell her best friend about them. And at first Buffy stammers a bit about it — after all, it’s not often she comes across a problem she can’t punch her way out of — but when she realizes her weirdness isn’t coming across as “I don’t want to fuck this important moment up” and Willow asks her if she’s freaked out, she snaps out of it and looks her best friend right in the eyes and says she’s not freaked, and she’s glad Willow told her. To borrow from what Hanna Marin said to Emily Fields when SHE came out, whether she’s Willow dating Oz or Willow dating Tara doesn’t matter. Buffy loves WILLOW. Just the way she is.
I love Theo Crain’s coming out moments in The Haunting of Hill House, maybe because the stories of the Crain siblings aren’t told chronologically, maybe because they were surprisingly light scenes in a dark, dark show. Maybe because Theo Crain is one of my all-time favorite characters. Theo doesn’t necessarily come out to the audience and her family at the same time, but sort of across time all at once. In the same episode, we see her flirting with a girl at a bar, getting a talk from her mother with some quiet understanding, and the wedding scene, aka the coming out scene that I love.
Theo is at her sister Nell’s wedding when she gets caught sleeping with a bridesmaid. Steve and Nell find her, and at first there’s tense eye contact, and there’s a little stumbling over words, but then when Theo finishes the sentence, “We didn’t know you were into…” with “Bridesmaids?” the three siblings laugh a relieved laugh. Nell blurts out, “I love you,” and throws her arms around her big sister. She finishes zipping Theo’s dress and hugs her one more time for good measure. A few episodes later, we see another flash of the wedding and Nell and Steve make a game of watching their sister Shirley to see how long it will take her to notice Theo dancing with a fellow bridesmaid in a way that makes it clear they are more than just gal pals. Theo’s coming out feels different to me than a lot of other comings-out; I like that it was shown but it wasn’t a big deal. Because sometimes it’s not. Sometimes families react with love and laughter. I think it’s good we have a wide range of different coming out stories on TV, and I’m glad this one had some weight to it but then immediately lifted that weight.
My most recent favorite coming out scene was Robin on Stranger Things because her speech was perfect. It was rambling and awkward and sweet and it described exactly that feeling of watching your peers start to fawn over the cute boys in class as you enter teenhood but realizing you don’t want to date those boys, you want to BE those boys. Not in the literal sense, but in whatever way you have to so that girls would look at YOU that way.
I was in high school when the song “Sugar, We’re Goin Down: came out and the line, “Isn’t it messed up how I’m just dying to be him” still rattles around in my brain because of this very feeling. It’s tied to the line of Santana Lopez’s that will be forever etched on my soul because of how deeply I felt it: He’s just a stupid boy. It’s that lonely feeling of knowing you’re different, and that frustration that comes with seeing how easy it seems to be for everyone else. It’s watching your best friend’s boyfriend treat her like shit and knowing you’d be a better match but not being able to do anything about it. It’s perfectly written, and delivered expertly by Maya Hawke, and received surprisingly delightfully by Robin’s best bud Steve. Who promptly makes fun of her, because lovingly roasting people for their choice of crush is what friends are for.
When Santana Lopez came out in episode 215 of Glee, I didn’t see it coming, for all the same reasons I didn’t see it coming for myself, either. Because yes I made out with my hot blonde best friend in high school but my whole personality was an orbit of boys boys boys, of desperately seeking affirmation and reputation related to boys, of creating drama with girls about boys — and finding myself mostly confused that some girls couldn’t have emotionless, no-strings-attached heterosexual sex, which had always come easy to me. I also didn’t see it coming because I wasn’t prepared for Glee, an absurdist and completely unhinged delightfully-soundtracked and audaciously problemaitc high school variety show, to hit me in the heart like that.
I wrote this at the time but it seems like, where coming out stories are concerned, most girls saw a door. Maybe you’d gone in but kept it a secret, maybe you’d stood in front of it every afternoon debating entering. Maybe you kept opening and closing it, maybe your friends or family were blocking it. But some of us never even saw the door and nobody was blocking it but once it was open we fell straight in. A friend opened that door for me. I never, ever, ever in ten million years, would’ve opened it myself. When they’re all sitting in a “sacred sharing sexy circlewp_posts(I hate this show) led by Gweneth Paltrow playing Holly Holiday (of course) and she asks Brittany and Santana if they think they could be lesbians, she opens that door for Santana. Because she says it like it would be an okay thing to be, like it wouldn’t even be a big deal, like she could be gay and still be cool.
After Santana finished singing “Landslidewp_poststo Britany and we were all crying at a Glee episode and Brittany asked “Do you really feel that way?wp_postsand Santana nodded and they hugged — that was the first moment Glee felt real to me. And then Santana came out to Brittany, face to face, and said she wanted to be with her but she was afraid of the talks and the looks and what everyone would say behind their back. It’s hard to be proud and mean and sharp-tongued to admit that even if you know your friends will accept you, you still care what your enemies think about you, too. Because Santana was always afraid to feel anything real, with anyone, because wanting Brittany makes her more vulnerable than she’s ever been, and it’s terrifying.
I think a lot of fans related to Santana’s coming out story because she fell in love with her best friend, but that wasn’t the case for me. I think I related to it because of how your story can seem to be one way but ends up being something else altogether. Half her personality was being boy-crazy, you know?
I doubt that Santana was written from the jump with the intention to make her a lesbian, but sometimes that’s what a coming out journey feels like — like you’re in a show and the writers chose a new direction for your character mid-way through Season Two. You can still look back and find a way to make it all fit together, though. Stories and lives are fluid like that.
Whenever I think of “coming out,wp_poststhere will always be Santana Lopez. There will be her tear stained cheeks and the quiet in her voice, a voice that usually takes up the entire room. There will always be this: “I’ve tried so hard to push this feeling away and keep it locked inside but every day feels like a war. I walk around so mad at the world but I’m really just fighting with myself and I don’t want to fight anymore. I’m just too tired. I have to just be me.”
When I first saw the scene, it felt like someone had vacuumed air out of my lungs. In my apartment with the cheap Ikea furniture and walls I had badly painted myself, time stood still. I had been trying to figure out how to come out for… years? For what had felt like forever? But I never understood how to explain the ways I had tied myself into gut knots over my own secret. How I was so deep in my own closet, I didn’t see a way out. And no one was in there but me, right? No one was forcing me to make myself smaller, and yet here I was fighting every single day, tearing myself in two from the inside out, forcing up armor, trying so desperately to be perfect — as if being perfect would somehow mask my queerness. And I was exhausted.
There’s a long road to my coming out, but there’s also a very direct and almost comically linear path. For years, I didn’t come out. For years, I choked on silence because I couldn’t say the words. Then Santana Lopez sat at her abuela’s kitchen table and said she was tired of fighting. That was eleven years ago, right before Thanksgiving. By Christmas break, I was out. Coming out changed everything. My friendships, my love, hell, this job that I now have. And it was as simple as that.
I talk a lot about my mom on this website, because when you’re the only daughter of a single mother… that’s a very specific kind of bond, I think. But there is a story I never tell — in part because I think if my mother knew I remembered it, knew how much it impacted me, she’d be ashamed. And in part because I don’t think she remembers it at all; it’s not reflective of all my other coming out stories, all the other times that she said or did the “rightwp_poststhing. Maybe it’s unfair to bring back an off-handed comment from when I was 14 years old. It’s so small! It also never left.
One day, my freshman year in high school, we were driving some place that I do not remember to do a thing that does not matter. For reasons that I cannot explain, I felt a need to ask my mother “what would you do if I was gay?wp_postsIt felt silly and light hearted — because first of all, I obviously wasn’t gay (I absolutely was) and second of all, because I knew my mother would accept me. She was very left and very sex positive, a feminist who wouldn’t ever use the word feminist but bought me a middle grade reader version of Our Bodies, Our Selves before I had my first period. Her best friend was a lesbian. This wasn’t a new concept. Plus, my mother’s whole deal has always been “I’d love you no matter what.”
Except this time, she didn’t say that. She said, “Well, I guess I’d be sad… It’s already so hard to be Black and be a woman. I don’t think any parent would want more hard things for their child.wp_postsAnd maybe that was true! It certainly makes sense. But then, I didn’t come out for another eleven years.
That’s a long story to get back to the “Thanksgivingwp_postsepisode of Master of None‘s second season. But you see, almost verbatim, those are the exact words that Angela Bassett repeats when Lena Waithe’s Denise comes out to her. Also an only daughter of a single mother. “I just don’t want life to be hard for you. It is hard enough being a Black woman in this world. Now you want to add something else to that?”
I’ve never known what to do with that story. Just an ellipsis that haunts me, I suppose. I can imagine, as a parent, especially as a Black parent, wanting to protect your child. I also… yeah. Not all the coming out scenes that stay with us, stay with us for good reasons. Some just keep us up at night.
Like a lot of people here, I’ve already written a lot about specific coming out scenes in film and television — some for characters already shouted out in this roundtable, like Alex Danvers and Santana Lopez. But I think these days if I had to choose just one coming out scene to revisit over and over again, it would be Elena Alvarez’s from One Day at a Time.
Elena reminds me a lot of myself in high school. I was very nerdy, passionate about the things I was into, vocal about social justice issues, a little cringe, earnest, intense. When Elena comes out to her mom in “Sex Talk,wp_postsit gets me every time. Because I never got to have that moment. I was never even close to out in high school, and I get a little absurdly jealous of the people who were able to be. I try not to project myself onto fictional characters as much as I did in my youth, but watching Elena come out, it’s impossible to not imagine my teenage self doing the same and wonder what that might have looked like for me.
Like Elena, I was so confident and outspoken about so many things, but I was a closed and locked box when it came to this, and Elena quietly, cautiously is able to open the box. It’s a lovely scene in its silences, in its well timed comedic breaks (“No wonder you saw those Twilight movies so many times.”), in the way it centers Elena’s emotions but still makes some room for Penelope, too. Because, yes, it should of course be about Elena, but she isn’t coming out to a stuffed animal. She’s coming out to someone who knows her deeply and who loves her. There’s empathy and emotional complexity afforded to both characters in this moment, and it’s easily my favorite daughter-mother coming out moment ever. I didn’t really come out to my own mother. She called me one day and asked “when are you going to tell me about the girl you’re dating?wp_postsand I was like “I guess now?????wp_postsIn a lot of ways, that approach worked for us. By then, I was already 23, and I don’t know how much longer it may have taken me to put things as plainly to her as Elena does with Penelope. But sometimes I do like to imagine this alternate universe where I did things differently, where I had the courage and self-knowledge possessed by Elena.