Just a couple of months ago, I solemnly swore to myself that I will not contribute to the media tirade that fanned the flames of the Depp-Heard defamation trial, which kicked off on April 11 in Virginia, USA. However, a tweet that I saw last night dragged me back to the solemn reality of today’s media culture that seeks to sensationalize news reportage, without analysing it for its systemic issues.
Tweet being referenced:
Although many feminist accounts on social media have voiced their concern about the double burden of being a woman who survived domestic abuse and went on to report it (NOTE: nobody is saying that men do not survive/suffer domestic abuse, and that patriarchy doesn’t silence them!), what has been largely ignored is the biphobia that has fuelled the virtual witch-hunt of Amber Heard over the past couple of months.
For instance, a large part of Depp’s insecurity about his relationship with Amber Heard is rooted in her alleged (by him) infidelity, which in turn is a result of his biphobia. Media reports emerged about a woman referred to as Kelly Sue Milano, whose trailer Depp trashed after threatening to break her wrists, because she flirted with Heard and touched her in the process.
Bisexual people are routinely perceived as promiscuous, as people who cannot make up their mind about whom and how they want to fuck. On the other hand, bisexual people are also fetishized and unicorn-hunted by couples wanting to have threesomes, especially on dating apps. In fact, this is not only biphobic but also contributes to the invisibilisation of sex work – but that’s for a different story. In this particular matter, Depp seems to have not believed in his then-partner’s ability to set and uphold her own boundaries, simply because of her sexual orientation. Had it been a heterosexual woman, this might very well have been brushed off as harmless homo-eroticism or ‘gal-pal’ behaviour. Another allegation of infidelity that he levelled against heard involved her erstwhile co-star, James Franco. These allegations certainly cannot be seen as separate issues in their relationship, as it seems like every other (seemingly not queer) ex of Depp’s has spoken out about how he was never physically abusive towards them, which has contributed to much of his image-management in this trial.
The media’s biphobic approach to Amber Heard also goes back to a decade-old (to the year 2009, to be precise) incident wherein she was pulled up for an argument she got into with her then-partner, Tasya Van Ree at the Seattle airport. This incident is of importance to the optics of this trial, not because I say so, but since Depp’s own attorney brought it up to frame Heard as a serial abuser in relationships.
Depp’s Attorney Camille Vasquez also referenced the media’s reportage of the incident, wherein Heard was painted as Ree’s abuser. This was largely based on the story shared by an airport personnel who intervened in their argument and discovered that they were partners in an intimate relationship, and not just friends. In fact, Tasya Van Ree herself released a public statement calling out the homophobic nature of the authorities’ response, which helped reverse the temporary arrest of Amber Heard in that matter.
This is not to say that intimate partner violence is not an issue in queer relationships, but to simply highlight how homophobia contributes to exacerbate the threat of police intervention in such an incident. Whereas, the public assault of Amber Heard by Johnny Depp went unnoticed by on-lookers in several instances, except by way of whispered gossip and hushed check-ins on the former by her friends and family, out of respect for their privacy.
In fact, such a lop-sided response to public displays of domestic violence pushes intimate partner violence in queer relationships into further obscurity and silence, due to the survivor’s empathy and consideration for their queer partner, and not wanting to contribute to their defamation in a world that already systemically oppresses a queer person (morally uprighteous or otherwise, in this context) and robs them of opportunities to pursue happiness and thrive in loving relationships.
Carmen Maria Machado writes about this in the literary account of her life with an abusive woman, with whom she sought to build a life and a home, in her book – ‘In the Dream House’. Machado writes that even though she came of age in a culture where “gay marriage went from comic impossibility to foregone conclusion to law of the land”, she found herself battling with the persistent fear that her partner’s sexuality will once again be conflated with a mental illness, which she refers to as the “spectre of the lunatic lesbian”. She adds: “Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, “For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.””
This speaks volumes about the burden of being a ‘model queer person’ in a world that raised us to constantly fear the consequences of our queerness with the threat of violence (many a times unleashed upon us to rein in our queerness), even as we transitioned into a world that begrudgingly decriminalized it, all the while robbing us of rights that cis-het people enjoy without a second thought – marriage equality being only ONE of these myriad rights.
Is Amber Heard a perfect person? Unlikely. Has she, on account of her openly-queer public persona, been put through an unfair defamation trial by the jury (who were most certainly informed and swayed by media reports) as well as by the media?
The jury’s out.