Billie Eilish Wasn't Technically "Outed" — but Debating Her Sexuality Is Still Wrong

If it seems like discussions of Billie Eilish's sexuality have been in the news for months, that's because they have. Between her cryptic social media posts, seemingly coming out in a recent Variety profile, shrugging off the idea of needing to come out on the red carpet this past weekend, and then accusing Variety of "outing" her, the 21-year-old pop star's queerness has been the subject of discussion nearly as much as her music has been.

It's part of a long legacy of the media and the public unfairly debating celebrities' sexual identities.

Eilish has a right to be frustrated about that — it's part of a long legacy of the media and the public unfairly debating celebrities' sexual identities. But in making the accusation of being "outed," Eilish is using incredibly specific and loaded language that doesn't quite fit what's happened here. And the fact that most media coverage has not done more to push back on this narrative, choosing to simply quote Eilish and forgo adding context, is dangerous. But let's back up and get a better idea of what happened.

Speculation about the singer's sexuality has persisted for years, including when she was just a teen. In 2021 amid accusations of queerbaiting, Eilish was adamant that her sexuality was no one else's business. (It isn't.) Over the last few months or so, though, fans have started picking up on hints on her social media account that she might be queer. When asked who her celebrity crush was, she answered with a photo of actress Maya Hawke. She also posted a filter over a selfie of her face that said "Gay and Tired" and shortly thereafter shared a video of her sucking tongues with another girl before quickly deleting it.

Then, last month, Eilish gave an interview to Variety in which she said she's "physically attracted to" women. Media coverage celebrated Eilish for "coming out," though no one was quite sure what she had come out as. As Out reported, she lost over 100,000 followers after that interview was published (she still has 110 million).

Finally, on Dec. 2, Eilish walked the red carpet at Variety's 2023 Hitmakers event, where she would later receive the Hitmakers award for Film Song of the Year for her song "What Was I Made For?" off the "Barbie" soundtrack. In a red carpet interview with Variety's Tiana DeNicola, Eilish was asked, "Did you mean to come out in [your cover story]?"

Eilish replied, "No, I didn't, but I kinda thought, 'Wasn't it obvious?'" She continued, "I just don't really believe in [coming out]. I'm just like, why can't we just exist? I've been doing this for a long time, and I just didn't talk about it. Whoops. But . . . I saw the article and I was like, 'Oh! I guess I came out today!'"

After the event, Eilish took to Instagram to address the red carpet interview. "thanks variety for my award and for also outing me on a red carpet at 11 am instead of talking about anything else that matters," she wrote. "i like boys and girls leave me alone about it please literally who cares."

Here's the thing: Eilish has every right to ask the media to stop talking about her sexuality. Her frustration with the fact that the conversation is about who she wants to date rather than the music she's winning awards for is entirely valid. But to accuse DeNicola — a queer journalist herself — of outing her could be dangerous.

There is a long history of queer people being outed and suffering incredibly serious consequences as a result.

"Outing," as defined by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, refers to a very specific thing: revealing the sexuality of someone who is not open publicly about their queerness. It could be that the person doesn't feel ready to share it, it could be that coming out could risk their safety or familial relationships, or it might risk their job or livelihood. It is generally considered unethical to out someone publicly. There is a long history of queer people being outed and suffering incredibly serious consequences as a result. In fact, even in Hollywood, "lavender" marriages became commonplace in order to protect gay stars ("bearding," the practice of two gay celebrities dating each other as a cover, happens even today).

This is not what happened here. DeNicola asked Eilish a question about comments that she herself had made in a magazine cover story. Those public comments, made on the record to journalist Katcy Stephan at Variety, also followed the aforementioned Instagram posts.

To say that DeNicola "outed" her is to make an accusation that could impact DeNicola's career as a journalist. And the fact that she is a queer journalist makes it feel more insidious, potentially playing into the "predatory lesbian" trope. To make matters worse, most media outlets have allowed this accusation to go unchallenged — several well-known ones have all quoted Eilish's Instagram caption without pushback or context.

I have a lot of empathy for Eilish as a young queer person coming of age in the public eye — it's a thorny, taxing, sometimes distressing task. It takes time to really invest in the community and learn the history, to know what the terms we are using mean. Language also evolves over time, and I have plenty of space for that reality as well. Younger generations will use words differently than older generations do — even the term "queer" is proof of that. Many millennials and Gen Zers proudly claim and identify with that label, while elder gays may feel the word is a slur because it was used that way in the past.

But just because Eilish is uncomfortable talking about her sexuality or having it be the focus of media coverage about her does not mean she was outed. Words matter, and it's important we use the right ones.