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How women embraced their queer sexuality in 2023

Looking back on 2023, we witnessed a number of female celebrities embark on queer relationships. Relationship and sex experts tell Meredith Clark that women are no longer apologising for how or who they choose to love

Friday 19 January 2024 14:54 GMT
(Getty, iStock)

In 2023, we saw some of Hollywood’s favourite celebrity couples break up. But as the age-old saying goes: when one door closes, another door opens. Looking back on the last year, we also saw a number of female celebrities call it quits with their male partners and embark on new, queer relationships with other women… and it’s been amazing.

Last August, One Tree Hill alum Sophia Bush filed for divorce from her husband of 13 months, Grant Hughes. Just shy of two months later, it was reported she’s dating pro soccer star, Ashlyn Harris - prompting the many people whose queer awakening was the 2000’s TV show icon to jump for joy.

That same month, former Bachelorette lead Gabby Windey announced her relationship with her girlfriend, writer and comedian Robby Hoffman. The reality TV personality had starred alongside Rachel Recchia in season 19 of the ABC dating competition, in which she fielded through mines of 32 single male suitors in the hopes of finding true love. She left the series engaged to contestant Erich Schwer, but the couple ultimately announced their breakup a few months after the season aired.

“Told you I’m a girl’s girl!” she captioned her relationship hard launch with Hoffman on Instagram.

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention that Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kyle Richards and country music singer Morgan Wade were the subject of much romantic speculation for their close relationship over the past year. While it’s purely rumours, fans were nonetheless excited when Richards admitted during a recent RHOBH episode that she’d consider dating a woman. Fans, rejoice!

Much attention had been placed in 2023 on celebrity breakups, and not enough on its blossoming LGBTQ+ romances. According to relationship experts and sexuality educators, women (both in Hollywood and not) are finally putting themselves first when it comes to love.

Susan Winter is a New York City-based relationship expert and the bestselling author of Older Women/Younger Men. According to Winter, women are giving themselves permission to take ownership of their sexuality. “I am noticing more and more that individuals are giving themselves permission to love the person who is loving them,” she told The Independent. “I find this a beautiful and fascinating observation because society now is becoming more flexible in its understanding of partner selection.”

After Windey publicly announced she was in a queer relationship on social media, she headed over to The View, where she was unsurprisingly met with wide-ranging (perhaps invasive) questions about her sexuality. When co-host Sunny Hostin reacted to Windey’s announcement in shock, calling it “a twist” of events, Windey replied that she herself didn’t see it coming. After all, she did star as the lead of a notoriously heteronormative dating show.

“I think it was always a whisper in me that just got louder and louder, and I didn’t really know to pay attention to it,” Windey explained. “I think, you know, when this happens, there’s some shame, obviously, surrounding it.”

She admitted that she initially took time to “navigate through the shame” that unfortunately comes with being 100 per cent open - with yourself and others - about your sexuality. Dr Frankie Bashan is a board certified sex therapist and CEO and founder of Little Black Book Matchmaking, a personalised matchmaking service for lesbians and bisexual women. Speaking to The Independent, she emphasised how reckoning with feelings of shame is something a little too familiar for LGBTQ+ people. Fortunately, the tides are turning.

“It’s more acceptable to be sexually fluid, to be fluid in one’s sexual orientation and in their gender expression, because it’s safer now for people to explore their sexual orientation. They’re not as fearful,” she said. “They are free to be their true selves and that is one of the most important things as a human in order for us to thrive, is to be our most authentic selves. If we’re acting as if we’re somebody that is not in alignment with how we feel internally, it’s a struggle. Every day it’s a struggle.”

It only takes a few celebrities to signify a trend. When just a handful of A-list models dyed their hair “cowboy copper”, it signified a new trend in beauty. Or when several Hollywood couples break up in one year alone, perhaps it’s a new trend in dating. According to Winter, we look to public figures to broaden the parameters of what’s possible. They tend to be trendsetters and give the rest of us permission. But let’s be clear: women, whether publicly “out” or not, have been in same-sex relationships since the dawn of time.

“It’s important to be really careful in how we frame queerness as a trend. It can be really dangerous to frame things as a trend because it kind of plays into this right-wing narrative that queerness and transness is contagious, and therefore it should be shoved into the darkest corners of society,” Lena Peak, a social worker and sex educator with The Expansive Group, told The Independent. “It seems like the only reason that we’re talking about it is because these women have left their relationship with men to be with other women. I’m wondering if we would be having the same conversation if these women had just left their relationships to be with other men.”

Indeed, these burgeoning queer romances have piqued our curiosity, not because of their overlapping divorce announcements, but seemingly because the public was caught by surprise. Gasp, a conventionally beautiful woman who meets all the criteria of attracting the male gaze decides to forgo the social norm and date women rather than men? It seems unfathomable to people outside the queer community that hyper-feminine women such as Bush - who was married to none other than 2000s heartthrob Chad Michael Murray - or Windey - who went on a reality TV series to exclusively date people of the opposite sex - could be attracted to someone other than men.

“It goes against stereotypes that people have in their head of what a ‘lesbian’ looks like, or somebody who dates other women,” said Peak. “It really centres this idea of the male gaze, rather than viewing these women as autonomous. Maybe they’ve been queer their entire lives, or maybe not. Maybe this is a new thing for them, and I love that for them, too.”

Many subsequent reports pointed out that neither Bush nor Windey have publicly identified as queer or have openly dated women prior to these relationships - but why should they? In an era of social media and constant paparazzi attention, high-profile celebrities have abandoned the anxiety-inducing “coming out” narrative and instead just exist.

“I’m super glad that we are starting to view coming out as less of a big deal because this goes back to that place of cis-heteronormativity, where people are assumed to be cisgender or straight until proven otherwise,” said Peak. “That places all the onus on queer and trans folks to then come out and share their identities, often in very public ways, sometimes before they’re even ready.”

When it comes to high-profile relationships, seeing women like Bush and Windey unapologetically embrace their sexuality gives the rest of us hope that perhaps the new year will bring a little more love, and a little less calling it quits.

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