No one noticed when this ‘Arrested Development’ star came out—and that’s progress

Do we finally think a person’s sexuality is no big deal?


Nico Lang


Posted on May 22, 2017   Updated on Feb 28, 2020, 3:38 pm CST


Remember when coming out was so earth-shattering that gay celebrities had to go on Oprah to break the news? Twenty years ago, Ellen Degeneres sat on Winfrey’s couch for a two-episode special, one of the most talked-about and controversial interviews in TV history. When her titular protagonist came out on The Ellen Show, 36 million viewers tuned in to watch her walk out of a literal closet. Proclaiming gayness was so against the norm that conservative family groups called for a boycott of the popular sitcom, while mega-corporations like Chrysler pulled advertising. 

But when Alia Shawkat, best known for playing Maeby Fünke on Arrested Development, came out as bisexual in an Out magazine interview last week, America barely blinked. You might not have even heard about it.

The 28-year-old Palestinian-American actress, who will also reprise her popular role in Netflix’s just-announced fifth season of the show, sat down with the LGBTQ magazine to promote the well-reviewed indie film Paint It Black. She told Out that the film’s queer subtext was a natural fit.

“I was a tomboy growing up, and I remember my mom asking me when I was 10, ‘Are you attracted to boys or girls?’” Shawkat said. “I said I don’t know. Now I consider myself bisexual, and I think balancing my male and female energies has been a big part of me growing as an actor.”

The disclosure shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise to anyone who has been following Shawkat’s career since Arrested Development left the air in 2006. In a memorable episode of Comedy Central’s Broad City, she played Adele, the alluring doppelganger of Ilana (Ilana Glazer) who she ends up hooking up with. But whether Shawkat’s sexuality was previously speculated is beside the point. She is just the latest celebrity to come out in 2017 without attracting wide attention outside of the queer blogosphere. We may have finally passed the “gay bombshell” tipping point.

The same weekend that Shawkat opened up about being bisexual, The Flash star Keiynan Lonsdale offhandedly mentioned that he “likes girls and guys” in an Instagram post. Pop star Harry Styles, whose self-titled debut is expected to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts this week, told The Sun that he prefers not to label his sexuality.

“It’s weird for me,” Styles explained in an interview with the British newspaper. “Everyone should just be who they want to be. It’s tough to justify somebody having to answer to someone else about stuff like that.”

Kristen Stewart referred to herself as “gay” during the opening monologue of her Saturday Night Live hosting gig back in February, but most headlines about the episode didn’t even mention it. They were about the fact that Stewart dropped a bleeped-out “F-bomb.” It’s telling that when one of the most famous and recognizable actresses in America comes out after years of speculation about her relationships, it’s considered less newsworthy than the fact that she used a swear word while doing it.

As the public acceptance of LGBTQ people has grown, something that would have once been front page, headline-grabbing has been pushed increasingly further down the page—treated as just another detail about someone’s life.

Back in 2006, the news that former boybander Lance Bass likes boys was notable enough to land the cover of People magazine. But when Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto came out in a New York magazine interview five years later, the disclosure was nonchalant—and not even the subject of the piece. The aside pops up in the fourth paragraph of the article, which was about his role in a revival of Angels in America. A year after that, The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons revealed that he had been in a decade-long relationship with a man during a New York Times profile, a fact which appears in the 33rd paragraph.

If Shawkat were interviewed in the Times today, it might not end up in the story at all. There’s a reason for that: Today’s generation of media consumers, many of whom identify outside of the confines of traditional labels, don’t perceive sexual orientation to be a “big deal.”

A 2015 survey from YouGov found that 49 percent of U.K. millennials between the ages of 18 and 24 don’t identify as exclusively heterosexual. “With each generation, people see their sexuality as less fixed in stone,” researchers at YouGov concluded. A poll conducted by the research firm a year later concurred with that assessment: A majority of U.S. respondents told YouGov that sexuality is a spectrum, meaning that individuals identify along a continuum. As societal ideas of identity continue evolve and become more fluid, what was once a taboo subject becomes refreshingly ordinary.

Maeby Fünke may never get her big Oprah moment. But in 2017, the fact that her sexuality isn’t a big story shows just how much progress we’ve made in the past two decades.

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*First Published: May 22, 2017, 5:30 am CDT