Amber Heard just announced that she is coming out on social media. This is a strange proclamation on multiple counts: first, there’s the audience, a group of a hundred or so serious-looking men and women in western business attire, nary an Instagram influencer in sight. Then there’s the fact that Amber Heard already came out of the closet, way back in 2010. Or, to hear Heard tell it, “I was never in.”
Heard and her well-heeled audience are here for The Economist’s annual Pride & Prejudice conference. Attendees looking to advance the “global discussion on why LGBT-inclusion is good for business” may or may not have been expecting a tabloid lightning rod like Amber Heard to make an appearance. But, ready or not, come Thursday afternoon, Heard was preaching her message of LGBTQ activism and Hollywood heteronormativity to a rapt audience.
As a woman who has dated men and women, Heard stands in welcome contrast to performative celebrity allies who often appear to be milking queer issues—and haircuts—for attention and accolades. And, for the record, Amber Heard was always queer. But for a long time, “It was just not important or interesting enough to make headlines.” The same goes for advocacy work. Acording to the actress, “I was always out, I was an activist, I went to protests.” It’s just that, since her high-profile split from actor Johnny Depp, Heard’s every action, relationship, and outfit has been imbued with a newfound significance.
At a personal crossroads, Amber Heard chose to harness the toxic energy of her A-list divorce into charitable giving and crucial advocacy work. It’s a road less traveled by, and one that Johnny Depp, Heard’s ex, seems deeply uninterested in. Ever since Heard dissolved her marriage, accusing Depp of physically assaulting and emotionally abusing her, the Pirates of the Caribbean actor has been on something of a bad reputation bender. The divorce went down in the spring of 2016, in a series of he-said she-said headlines. The ante was officially upped when pictures of Heard’s bruised face hit the internet, alleged evidence of one of Depp’s violent attacks. Meanwhile, Depp’s Hollywood friends, associates, and reporters over at TMZ were quick to drag Heard through the mud, citing her bisexuality and perceived duplicity as evidence of a false report.
While Heard’s allegations didn’t destroy Depp’s career—he can do that all by himself—they sure helped. It also helped that Depp stands accused of reckless spending (I believe the technical term is “financial shit show” and starring in one spectacularly ill-timed Dior cologne campaign. Johnny Depp clearly knows that he’s in the proverbial doghouse of public opinion; after all, he’s been notably absent the past few months, save for a People’s Choice Awards appearance where he thanked his fans for standing by him “through whatever good times or bad.”
While Depp’s career is struggling under the weight of all those chickens come to roost, Amber Heard has rebranded herself as an all-purpose advocate. Immediately following the divorce proceedings, Heard announced plans to donate her $6.8 million settlement to charity, to be split between the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union, “with a particular focus to stop violence against women.” In addition to her work at the Children’s Hospital, where Heard has volunteered for many years, The Magic Mike XXL actress has recently expanded the scope of her advocacy.
Last November, Heard starred in a PSA with GirlGaze, taking on the negative stigma associated with speaking out about domestic abuse/intimate partner violence. The project, which was released on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Towards Women, found the 30-year-old star asking, “How is this happening to me? I’m strong, smart, I’m not a victim.” She continued, “It happens to so many women you know. When it happens in your home behind closed doors with someone you love, it’s not straightforward. If a stranger did this it would be a no-brainer.”
While Heard didn’t discuss her ex at Thursday’s appearance, she seemed down to talk candidly about any other topic. On her queerness, and why she “came out” in a 2010 interview: “Even though everyone around me strongly advised me against it, I just, it was just wrong. I would rather go down for being who I am than to have risen for being something I’m not. I was in a relationship and I just never hid it….an outlet specifically asked me who I was there with that night and what that person was to me, and I just answered honestly.”
On her “allergy” to labels: “I never have seen myself as defined by the person I’m with, the same way you’re not defined by the hair color of your partner—I never saw myself defined as one particular thing or not…I watched as I quickly became not actress Amber Heard, but out lesbian Amber Heard.” And on the inevitable backlash that comes from living as an out queer woman in the public eye: “my poor publicist.”
Heard may have always been out, but she’s never been this outspoken: particularly when it comes to challenging the status quo, and calling out the Hollywood heavy-hitters who perpetuate that stasis. “I have a lot of lesbian and gay friends that are very well-known working actors and the status quo is just that you answer ‘my private life is my private life,’ and it’s used as this kind of, not a euphemism, but it’s a nice way to dodge it,” she explains. “And I didn’t see any worth in that, because while that is true, while my private life is valuable to me, I knew that being in Hollywood I had a particular responsibility, the burden was on me in a different way than if I had a different kind of job that had less public attention around it. And I saw myself as being in this unique position, and as with any unique gift, it comes with a unique responsibility.”
It’s important to note that queer Hollywood in 2010 was very different than it is now—back when R Patz was still with K Stew, before Evan Rachel Wood starred on Westworld or Cara Delevingne ruled the modeling universe. Heard is eager to applaud how much things have changed so quickly, recalling, “In 2010 I was taking meetings with people, at that time my career was taking off in a different way and I was not just acting, I was being cast and leading movies as the romantic lead, and everybody around me said ‘as a romantic lead, as a leading lady, there’s a certain amount of wish-fulfillment you need to fulfill, you need to be able to sell, and how is anybody gonna invest in you romantically if they think you’re unavailable?’ and I rolled my eyes at that and I said watch me do it, and I did.” Still, she adds, “It was not easy—I was the only one working in this way, so it was definitely difficult because nobody had done it. But I stand here now in 2017 amongst many of my working romantic leading lady peers who are out, and living completely fluid, out lives, which is even more difficult I think than being a part of one particular label or not, and I’m one of many now.”
While we all know and love the group of celesbians Heard is referring to, this changing queer landscape begs an obvious question: where are all the A-list queer dudes at? Heard doesn’t really have an answer for why. “Off the top of my head, all the examples that are challenging this ‘if you don’t conform to this heteronormal standard, you won’t work again’” status quo are women. She notes, with just a hint of sarcasm, that “it’s apparently harder for men.” Still, “If women can do it and we can change the way that this conversation is had on a large scale, then men should be able to do it with as much or more efficacy. With all of the power and authority and representation—I mean, women are so severely underrepresented in film as it is, and that’s just white women, I’m not even speaking of other minority groups—if white men can’t change this, then I don’t know who can.”
“I think,” she adds, “If every gay man that I know personally came out in Hollywood tomorrow...we’ll have a day of it, national ‘you know who you are day’—if all of the gay men I knew personally came out tomorrow, then this would be a nonissue in a month.”
As a queer woman, Heard seems perplexed by the outdated content that Hollywood studios are pushing out. She laughs at the moderator’s characterization of Hollywood as a “bastion of liberal values,” responding, “Hollywood itself is filled with individuals who are very liberal and progressive and left-leaning, but on a macro level, Hollywood is the opposite. We like to think of it as providing a reflection of real life, art imitates life, and we like to think that we're making movies that reflect our reality. The truth is, Hollywood needs to change very quickly if it's going to still be relevant at all, because it has a lot of catching up to do just to mainstream society.” She cites a number of statistics on population diversity as well as increasingly progressive attitudes towards LGBTQ issues, arguing that Hollywood is simply stuck in the past.
“It’s filled with people who are allergic to taking risks and putting themselves out there, so what you see is a very formulaic approach, ‘Well this works because everyone loves the guy saves the world, kisses the girl, and lived happily ever after,’ and it follows not just a very typical heteronormal pattern, but it’s also tilted towards white men. Let’s just say diversity is not Hollywood’s strong suit,” she jokes. “It’s not the audience, it's not the actors or participants, the infrastructure has to change…The old Hollywood system is clinging on to the formula that they think has tested well and has worked, and they’d rather make that same movie over and over again then take risks in actually representing the world around them, and I think it’s up to us to change that.”
So what can we expect next from Amber Heard, actress turned tabloid fixture turned (or always was) queer activist? Amber Heard has a few things to say about that, too: “I plan to use every bit of my personal experience, my years in this business, my power, my drive, and all of the accumulative no’s I’ve gotten and use that to continue to change the status quo and challenge what is expected of me and the projects that we make. And there’s such a deficit of our stories being told, there’s so much to do, and I absolutely intend on doing that.”
Clearly, it’s going to take a lot more than an army of Johnny Depp lackeys and a confidentiality agreement to shut Amber Heard up.