Maria Bello Is a “Whatever,” But You Can Call Her a Lesbian

The award-winning actress, activist, and now author opens up to DAME’s sex columnist about being Catholic, the 21st-century family, and her crusade against labels.

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Our culture likes labels, and nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to sex. Throw celebrity into the mix and the need to use a lone word to summarize a person’s entire erotic identity becomes almost manic (see: Kristen Stewart). One solution? Declare yourself a “whatever.” This is what actress Maria Bello did in her 2013 New York Times “Modern Love” essay entitled “Coming Out As a Modern Family,” where she announced not only her romantic relationship with activist and media executive Clare Munn, but her embrace of this distinctly new label, inspired by her then-12-year-old son’s response to her revelation: “Mom, love is love, whatever you are.” She expands on the topic, and many other identity issues, in her new book, out next Tuesday from Dey Street Books, Whatever … Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves.

The memoir-in-essays, together with the accompanying website, is part of Bello’s quest to make room for all of those who don’t fit so easily into labels like “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual,” and those who exist outside the heterosexual nuclear family structure. In each chapter, Bello asks herself a philosophical question about her existence (“Am I a Bad Girl?,” “Am I Cinderella?,” “Am I a Feminist?,” “Am I LGBT or W”?), and in the process, asks readers to question terms we likely have taken for granted. In the opening essay, Bello asks, “Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with?”

The book is not, however, a manifesto against labels, but instead a deep, heartfelt exploration of how labels can both hinder and help us, as examined through various aspects of Bello’s life, from her childhood to her visits to Haiti to love affairs and beyond. Ultimately, Bello writes, “Labels are useless and meaningless, unless they are the labels you want for yourself and make you feel part of a community to which you are proud to belong. Labels should never make you feel judged or afraid.” Bello spoke with DAME about the welcoming reaction to her initial essay, sexual identity and politics, and why “whatevers” are the wave of the future.

What kind of reaction did you get after you published your New York ‘Times’ essay?

It was really stunning to me. I had 273,000 Facebook hits that day and mostly everyone said, “I’m a whatever and I never knew what to call it” or “I have a whatever family too.” People started coming up to me and talking about how they were whatevers—whatever about their sexual identity or about their partners or about their religion. I thought, Wow, this needs to be continued. This is an important topic for many, many people.

In a way you’re questioning the primacy of labels, but you’re also forming a community of people who are bonding over not fitting into the traditional gay/lesbian/bisexual framework. What do you think about the value of labels, for yourself and for other “whatevers”?

You know Facebook added new labels last year for sexual identity, including binary, cisgender…you’d have to look up all the definitions, but there’s so many of us. So shall we change LGBT to LGBTCDWFG? It would be like the entire alphabet. Instead of that sort of idea, you choose the label that feels good for you, that empowers you. The other labels that don’t empower you, don’t empower you. So when I say I consider myself a whatever, that is true. Whoever I love and however I love them, whether I sleep with them or not, basically what it all boils down to is love is love. Let’s be honest—how old are you?

I’m 39.

Are you in a committed sexual relationship?

I am.

Are you in other committed relationships?


With who?

I would say with my closest friends, with some of my family members, I’d even say with some of my friends’ kids, in a way. It feels weird to lump those together, but, yes.

But guess what? In the new organization of family, relationship and partnership, that’s not a weird thing. That’s a lot of people’s experiences. Clare, who I live with, she doesn’t have a child of her own, but my son Jackson and a few other kids are her godchildren. They’re her partners. They’re the people she will walk through life with. There was that great article in the Times about people who don’t have children, and are proud of saying, I don’t want a child. And that’s okay too.

“Childless” doesn’t mean you don’t love children, you just didn’t have any of your own. You may have children in your life, or not.

I have three friends I can think of who don’t have children per se but their animals are their children. So are we supposed to say, Well, that’s not really a family. That’s not really being a parent. You know what? It is to some people.

In the LGBT or W chapter, you talk about how politics play a role in this. You wrote that you were part of the LGBT community before you’d ever slept with a woman, and also that there are people who are gay who don’t share your politics. Especially with what’s happening in Indiana being so prominent, how does [being a whatever] fit into fighting for the rights of people to be able to love who they love?

The part of the LGBT community that I relate to are the revolutionaries, the community that struggles for people to love whoever they want to without being disenfranchised. For me it’s not about the person you’re having sex with, it’s, who do you fight for and what do you fight for?

For instance, in that chapter, when I say there’s a woman who’s always been a bit of an asshole. I don’t like her at all. She was always very rude to me and suddenly the article came out and she came up to me at this event, gave me a hug and said, “Welcome to the club.”

What club are you talking about? Just because you have sex with women? I’m not interested in her club, but not because she was or wasn’t having sex with a woman, just because of who she is. I don’t care if you’re having sex with a shoe; if you’re a good person and you believe that love is love, that’s my club. And if you fight for people’s rights to love whomever they love, that’s the club I want to belong to. That’s the club I do belong to.

Like you said, whether you’re straight or married or whoever you are, you can also be part of that movement.

I was in Austin receiving this award from the HRC (Human Rights Campaign) and three quarters of the room were apparently straight people. They have the most incredible community in Austin; they consider themselves part of the LGBT community. You know, revolutionaries.

I write about being Catholic in my book. I’ve reclaimed the term Catholic for myself. Partly because my son wanted to explore his Catholicism, partly it was the new Pope, partly it was these revolutionary priests and thinkers I’m meeting who have the same ideas that I do, who invite everyone into the Catholic Church. And then I read about this crazy archbishop who’s running around saying that we’re all sinners. I don’t want to then say okay, well, I’m not Catholic because this guy is a fucking idiot because he doesn’t understand the principles that I believe to be Catholic and that many more people are believing, which is the Christianity where I come from, which is acceptance of everyone.

Your son is 14. Do you see this acceptance or this not needing a label getting better with future generations? Do his peers also think along those lines?

Yes. For an elective, [he was given] gender studies. My son thought it was the dumbest thing ever. He said “Mom, what is the point? We all know boys and girls are equal.” It just doesn’t compute for him. He would never say, “My best guy friend is gay.” He would never say, “My gay friend Ray.”

That makes me really happy for the next generation. You could say, maybe that’s just L.A or New York, but one of my dear friends and old assistant is from Kansas, and his family has that same belief system. There are people all over the world that are shifting their belief systems to include different labels.

For your New York ‘Times’ essay, did you have a pros and cons list? What were some of the things you were concerned about, and how did you decide, okay, I’m going to do this?

Funny enough, it just gushed out of me. I wrote it in an hour. I had no fear about it. It was after my son’s dad [Dan]’s fiftieth birthday party. My parents flew out for it, and Clare was with me, and Dan’s family, and my son. I thought, I have this different kind of family, but it’s fantastic and there’s so much love here. How lucky am I? So it really came from that place of gratitude.

Even the Modern Love editor, Daniel Jones, asked me, “Are you sure you want to publish this?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” It’s a salacious idea, the idea of coming out, but it was about something bigger.

I’ve never talked about who I have sex with. So for me, it was: will I be judged because of who I have sex with? What will that look like for my son, for me? By the time I wrote my article, I was kind of over all that. I went, well, whatever, love is love, this is what it is and thankfully I just live more and more in that space.

Were there any negative repercussions or fallout?

I’ve had no negative repercussions for any of this. I want to say 99% of any and all social media letters are really supportive and have been inspired by this idea. I think that there are no negative repercussions for being true to yourself in the world.

You wrote in your follow-up for The New York ‘Times’ that you realized that there are many more modern families than you had thought. Can you give examples of what some of those modern families look like?

My friend Hezekiah lives part-time in Philadelphia and part-time here in L.A. His house here consists of his mother, his niece and nephew, and he and his wife part-time. His house in Philadelphia consists of his wife, his wife’s sisters sometimes, and her children, and himself. They are all family. They all came out here to his baby shower, and his ex-wife was throwing the baby shower for him and his new wife! That’s the sort of modern family I believe in. Just because you decide to go different directions in your life, just because you decide not to have sex with this person any more, doesn’t mean the love goes away.

One of the other things that spoke to me in the book, because you do not see it very often, is you talk about people having affairs and you write, “let’s not pretend that only bad people have affairs,” and how we shouldn’t judge ourselves or each other around that. I’ve been in a situation where I confessed to someone that I had an affair with someone who was married and immediately, you can feel them judging you.

Our sexuality is a very complicated thing and if we pretend that it isn’t, we’re doing ourselves and our world a disservice. The more that we don’t talk about it, the more that it will continue to live in the shadows. I decided to write that chapter because of that. Let’s not live in the shadow anymore; let’s start being honest about this.

Do you remember when Larry Flynt, who I think is hysterical, said I’ll give a million dollars to anyone who can find one of these Republicans who’s had an affair as well [as Clinton] and suddenly these Republicans started stepping down? Often people point fingers at people who are doing something that they themselves either are afraid of, that they want to do, or they’re doing themselves.

The very definition of desire is to want something you don’t have, so let’s talk about that in terms of sexuality and what that means. There aren’t many people I know who can still say, living day in and day out with a person for 20 years, that they are passionately, sexually turned on by them. I can’t think of one person, to be quite honest, and that’s not a bad thing. We all have partnerships for different reasons. A lot of times, a primary—if you want to call it a primary—partnership, the person you live with, it’s not necessarily because you want to have sex all the time.

Right. That’s also a notion that goes against what we’re taught, that you find one person to love and have sex with for the rest of your life. Maybe you get married, then maybe you get divorced if that doesn’t work out.

That’s the thing—that phrase you just said, “it doesn’t work out”—that kills me. If someone says, “Yeah, well, we were married for twenty years but it didn’t work out.” Of course it worked out! You were married for twenty years. You had twenty years together. What’s not working out? Just because you decided you didn’t want to have sex anymore? Or that you’re growing in different directions? Let’s change that vernacular as well. Let’s stop blaming and shaming ourselves for a relationship “not working out” when in fact it did work out.

You wrote that Clare had never used labels for herself in terms of her sexuality. That if she was with a man or a woman, not having a label didn’t bother her. Based on the people you’ve interacted with since your essay, do you think some people are wired to want that label? Are some people more like her, where the labels have never mattered?

There aren’t many people like her. She’d never really thought about it. I do want to say, there’s something about being African. She’s fourth generation African. And a lot of my African friends, who are many generation African have that same feeling. I don’t know what that is exactly, but maybe there’s a sense of being so close to nature, to life and death, that labels become sort of meaningless at a certain point.

By the way, her father had to leave Zimbabwe, he had everything taken by Mugabe, but her brother and mother still live there, and homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe. So now, since it’s been public, she can’t even go back there. That’s really sad because she never defined herself like that. she just cries and says, “I want to go home,” and she can’t.

You say that if you have to pick a label, you identify yourself as a whatever. But how would you react if someone says, “Maria Bello is a lesbian”?

Label me whatever you want. I don’t really give a crap what anyone labels me, to be honest, if it’s empowering, if it helps human rights policy. But if you look at the definition of having had sex with men and having had sex with women, that would be “bi.” But as I’ve said, [these] new definitions have come out and some are like, You’ve had emotional relationships with women and only sexual relationships with men, so that’s a different thing. So “bi” is limiting when you start to look at all these other definitions. I’m sure I can look at all these definitions and find at least five that I am.

Based on the people who you’ve been in touch with, do you believe labels are as limiting for men?

I do, and again I think that’s changing for younger generations. My younger friend, the other day we were talking about being with men and women, and he said, “Of course. I was with a man before and it was really great.” So is he bisexual? He prefers to have sex with women now. He doesn’t know what that is exactly. I think men have it much harder; there’s this idea of masculinity and what it means to be a man who’s gay, and effeminate qualities that we suggest belong to that label. That’s really outdated. I’m hoping this book can serve as a little bit of a platform for those men to feel freer about it.

You’re launching the Whatever Love Is Love site; are there plans for other projects?

There’s a lot that’s come out of this. The Whatever Love is Love website is for people to buy products that proclaim themselves whatevers. A percentage of everything sold on the site goes to HRC, Equality Now, and We Advance [a nonprofit co-founded by Bello], because it’s about advancing human rights. This term is about advancing human rights.

We also have a production company called Ground Seven and we’re doing films and television series and video games that are the voices of whatevers, meaning the stories are told not only from a man’s perspective or from a male storyteller or from a white storyteller. It’s diverse voices, grounded stories from seven continents all over the world, because we want those voices.

Were there any of the stories [in the book] where you thought, Maybe I shouldn’t tell this, or this is too much?

Mostly about my dad; I was afraid to hurt him by being honest about what my experience was with our childhood. That’s the worst part, to think about hurting people that you love. I was nervous to write some things about my affair with a married man, for my son to read that. But eventually I had to say to myself, What is the greatest gift I can give? The greatest gift I can give is my truth and my stories. That’s all I have, so that’s what I gave. Maybe it will hurt someone’s feelings. I’m not sure, but thankfully it didn’t hurt my dad’s, and it doesn’t seem to be hurting Jackson’s. That’s just something that I have to live with. I think any artist does that, right?

After asking yourself all these questions, what’s the biggest thing you learned about yourself through that process?

A word that I always loved and related to since I was younger was “becoming.” I realized more and more through writing this book and looking at my old journals and asking these questions that I am constantly becoming. That my life will always be fluid as long as I’m alive, whether I want it to or not.

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