You won’t find them here for reasons I’ll get to in a second, but you may have heard about those photos: the ones where famous person Kristen Stewart and non-famous person Alicia Cargile hang out on a beach in Hawaii, looking about as happy as two young, beautiful people hanging out on a beach in Hawaii should. But these photos aren’t your typical creepshots of celebrities being Just Like Us, only hotter and richer: they’re creepshots of Stewart and Cargile holding hands and changing outfits and being maybe probably more than platonic. Cue shitstorm.
For the uninitiated, Kristen Stewart’s queerness in general, and her involvement with Cargile in particular, has long been a topic of conversation in corners of the Internet several degrees removed from the target demo of, say, TMZ. Think Tumblrs called Team GayStew and Fuck Yeah, GayStew! and Oh Hey, GayStew; think an Autostraddle post called “Sherlock Homo: The Case of Kristen Stewart Allegedly Having a Girlfriend.” Hence why the reaction to the photos has been less, “Oh, Kristen Stewart might be dating a woman, cool for her I guess?” and more, “I FUCKING KNEW IT!!!!”
Speculating about a celebrity’s sexuality generally falls into public-figure-fair-game territory, one of the tradeoffs that come with earning zillions off a franchise whose hold on aughts-era tween girls is rivaled only by Justin Bieber. And generally, the GayStew theories are on the more innocuous side of the gossip spectrum — mildly invasive, but hardly more so than “FAMOUS WOMAN X GAINED WEIGHT DURING PREGNANCY, HOW DARE SHE” or “WHY FAMOUS WOMAN Y IS A BAD MOM BASED ON THESE TWO BLURRY PICS OF HER KID.” Even that Autostraddle post draws a (very reasonable) line in the sand: “The fact remains that common decency and basic tact preclude us from drawing any sorts of real deductions.”
If that’s where the boundary lies, the fist-pumping reactions to the Cargile photos crossed it almost immediately. Sure, the photos may support some longstanding beliefs about Stewart’s personal life — but the gleeful whoops of vindication surrounding their release seems to willfully ignore just how they did so.
Because while the photos might prove that Stewart’s not straight, they definitely prove a few other things: that Stewart was followed to the beach without her permission; that photographers deliberately intruded on an outing that was meant to be private; that said intrusion was almost certainly done for the express purpose of setting off the maelstrom of “gotcha!!!”s that has predictably ensued. And that the photos are awfully reminiscent of the last time Stewart’s love life was smeared across the headlines — not that any of the “gotcha!!!”s seem to have connected the dots between Alicia Cargile and Rupert Sanders.
There’s an assumption underlying that failure to connect the dots, one that’s all the uglier for going unstated: that because Stewart’s partner this time is a woman, not a man, these photos are different. That there may be ethical problems with the photos, but those problems are forgivable because proving Stewart’s sexual orientation serves some kind of greater good. Nothing exemplifies that assumption better than this second Autostraddle post, which rightfully declines to re-publish the photos but still includes a creepy Photoshop rendering of Stewart surrounded by famous lesbians like Ellen DeGeneres and Samira Wiley, who are literally cheering her on.
This is where we enter the thorny territory of celebrity coming-out narratives, and the extent to which celebrities themselves have a right to control them. It’s a debate that resurfaces every few months, whether it’s about Shep Smith or Tim Cook. On the one hand, there’s the argument that the need for queer representation and role models is pressing enough that celebrities should come out on their own — or be outed if they’re not willing to do so. And on the other, there’s the argument that people’s private lives are their own, queer people’s as much as anybody else’s.
I subscribe to the second school, particularly because imposing a special burden on queer celebrities reinforces the idea that queer people don’t have the same rights as everyone else, whether or not that imposition is well-intended. In this case, the right in question is privacy, which famous people cede some, but by no means all of. Representation is always a good thing, but is the need for it really so dire that people are obligated to disclose their identities, whether they want to or not?
Forced outing, or even the current KStew furor, also broadcasts the message that being lesbian, bi, or just outside the heteronormative status quo is still something strange — something freakish, and thus deserving of a freakout. If the ultimate goal of the LGBT movement is to make non-heterosexuality (along with diverse gender identities) normal, then we ought to treat Stewart and Cargile the way we treat any other famous couple. Which means we ought to condemn those photos the way we’d condemn any other invasive creepshots.