At the recent 69th Annual Tony Awards, the composers Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron became the first female writing team in history to win a Tony for musical score. The duo took home the award for their contribution to Fun Home, the musical based on a 2006 coming-of-age memoir by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In their acceptance speech, Tesori clarified the meaning behind “Ring of Keys,” an anthem about a young girl coming to terms with being gay performed by the 11-year-old Tony-nominee Sydney Lucas that evening on the telecast. The number is “not a song of love, it’s a song of identification,” she said. “Because for girls, you have to see it to be it.”
This new see-it-to-be-it visibility for lesbian and bisexual women, plus a new wave of women who adopt a more fluid label to their sexuality, is not limited to just the stage of Fun Home either. (Although winning the Tony has been an obvious boon: the show’s producers said that ticket sales had quadrupled by the next day.) Carol, a film directed by Todd Haynes based on the 1952 Patricia Highsmith lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt, had been in development for nearly 15 years before its Cannes debut this past May. The wait paid off: Rooney Mara, one of the film’s stars, won the Best Actress prize at the festival for her portrayal of Therese Belivet, a 19-year-old ingénue who falls in love with Carol Aird, a mysterious older blonde portrayed by Cate Blanchett. During an interview with Variety to promote the film, Blanchett was asked if her role in the movie was her first stab at being a lesbian. “On film — or in real life?” she quipped. Asked to clarify whether she’s had previous relationships with women, she responded: “Yes. Many times.” After a dispute with Variety over the context of her words, Blanchett summed up any confusion over whether or not she had previously been in a relationship with women with a sentiment perfect for today’s moment: “In 2015, the point should be: who cares?” she said during a press conference.
While Hollywood is still not always the most hospitable climate for gay women (or straight women, for that matter), Blanchett is not the only actress with a who-cares attitude. This new sense of comfortability is explored by the actress Maria Bello in her new book, Whatever….Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves, which came out in April. The memoir expands on a column Bellow wrote in 2013 for The New York Times that detailed how she unexpectedly fell in love with a female friend and the even more surprising support the relationship received from her 12-year-old son Jack. In a YouTube video titled “I’m a Whatever,” Bello said, “Labels should never make us feel judged or afraid.” In less than two months, the clip has amassed over 16,000 views. Just last week, Bello and her partner, Clare Munn, appeared arm-in-arm on the red carpet for the Sundance Institute Celebration in Culver City.
“This year seems to be a watershed year in lesbian representation, but it’s been on the boil for a little while,” said Merryn Johns, the editor of the lesbian magazine Curve. “With the rise of social media, not only does everyone have a platform, but celebrities and public individuals really have nowhere to hide or a way to stay in the closet by curating a certain kind of public image. This has led to a new openness and polymorphous visibility that has changed the culture permanently.”
In many ways, the current spotlight on lesbian and bisexual women owes a great deal to outspoken champions of underground culture that helped set the stage for today’s mainstream moment. Take the Berlin-based, Canada-born musician Merrill Nisker, better known as Peaches, for example, who has been subverting gender and sexuality norms for the past two decades. Her new book, What Else Is in the Teaches of Peaches, features snapshots with the likes of Iggy Pop and PJ Harvey and essays from Yoko Ono and Michael Stipe. A chapter from the actress Ellen Page, “She Offered Me Something I Could Not Find Elsewhere,” chronicles Peaches’ influence on Page’s own budding lesbian identity as a teenager.
“Peaches is ferocious, relentless, sexy, confident, and gives all of herself to her audience,” she said. “She is a person who inspires.”
Page, who is 28, is also the host of her own upcoming gay travel show on Vice’s new cable channel that is set to launch in early 2016. She joins a host of lesbian voices on the small screen, such as several of the lead actresses on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Broad City’s Ilana (portrayed by Ilana Glazer), who pines after both sexes in almost every episode (including her one-step-too-far girl crush on her best friend Abbi). They join a growing sorority of out female stars who have grown up during the rapid advancement of gay rights and the breakneck speed of social media. Cara Delevingne, one of the most followed supermodels on Instagram, does little to shield her relationship with indie musician St. Vincent (Annie Clark) from the paparazzi. In an Instagram post from October of last year in support of National Coming Out Day, Delevingne wrote, “Don’t be scared to be who you are.” Last May during a Facebook Q & A in which Miley Cyrus was asked to define her sexuality, the singer espoused a similar open-ended viewpoint. “I never want to label myself. I am ready to love anyone that loves me for who I am. I am open,” she said. In the current issue of Paper magazine on newsstands now, Cyrus proudly discussed her previous relationships with women and even coming out to her mother when she was a teenager. “I remember telling her I admire women in a different way. And she asked me what that meant. And I said, I love them. I love them like I love boys,” she said.
Cyrus’s words “probably would have seemed more controversial even as recently as a year ago,” said Bradley Stern, the editor of the music and culture blog PopCrush. “But it feels like progress toward acceptance of concepts like sexual fluidity and genderqueer is moving forward at an exponential rate.”
Besides Page, Delevigne, and Cyrus, other high-profile lesbian image makers include J.Crew’s Jenna Lyons, the photographer Cass Bird, the house-music DJ Kimann Foxman, the television writer Ali Adler (Supergirl, a new show she codeveloped, is scheduled to premiere on CBS in November) and her fiancée Liz Brixius (creator of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie). Perhaps the most followed of all is Kristen Stewart, who is often snapped lovingly showcasing public displays of affection with her said-to-be girlfriend Alicia Cargile.
For some, an increase in visibility is also a pause for reflection. At Home With Themselves: Same-Sex Couples in 1980s America, a show at the Foley Gallery in New York City featuring a body of work by renowned photographer Sage Sohier that showcases photos of gay couples in domestic settings during the Reagan era, opens this July. In many ways, the exhibition’s tender black-and-white images foreshadow today’s more hospitable social climate. “Looking at these pictures now, I realize that it took a good deal more courage to stand up and be photographed as a same-sex couple in the 1980s than it does today, and I think the photographs somehow convey that,” said Sohier. “People in my father’s generation had grown up feeling that being openly gay was just not an acceptable option. In my generation that began to change, and I was grateful to be witness to it.”