No Such Nonsense

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Sex and Celebrity: The Outing of America

Last week, Neil Patrick Harris - still best known as TV's Doogie Howser, his career resuscitated by a filthy-mouthed turn in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle - came out of the closet. A few weeks ago, T.R. Knight - sad-sack George on the enormously popular Grey's Anatomy - released a statement acknowledging that he is gay. And not so long ago, former boy-bander Lance Bass announced that he is gay, and in a relationship with out-and-proud reality show winner Reichen Lemkel.

Seems like a good thing... Perhaps Hollywood is finally coming out of the closet. Break out the rainbow flags! But hold on just a second with that flag-waving celebration of diversity. Turns out, all three men didn't so much choose to step out of the closet as they were pushed:

Harris' statement came after a gossip column on noted that he had secured a role on How I Met Your Mother for "long-time sweetheart David Burtka." At first, a publicist denied the item, saying of Harris: "He is not of that persuasion." Harris, who had never publicly commented on speculation about his sexuality, quickly stepped forward to downplay the publicist's denial and set the record, well, straight. He told People: "I am happy to dispel any rumors or misconceptions and am quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest and feel most fortunate to be working with wonderful people in the business I love." That's a lovely sentiment - but would he have said anything if his publicist's comments had not been picked up by the mainstream media?

The T.R. Knight case was a tricky one too. It all began with a fistfight on the set of Grey's between the McDreamy Patrick Dempsey and co-star Isaiah Washington. In the age of instant online gossip, reports quickly surfaced that Dempsey and Washington had come to blows when Washington got worked up over a co-star's lateness to the set. The first reports named Knight as the offending latecomer. But just hours later, new reports emerged on other outlets that Dempsey had been standing up for a co-star whom Washington had labeled a f-ggot. The second reports didn't name Knight, but it didn't take gossip-hounds long to put two and two together. A few days later, Knight issued his public statement, also to People: "I guess there have been a few questions about my sexuality, and I'd like to quiet any unnecessary rumors that may be out there. While I prefer to keep my personal life private, I hope the fact that I'm gay isn't the most interesting part of me."

Then there's Bass. A former member of multi-platinum selling boy-band *N Sync, Bass came out of the closet shortly after he began dating Lemkel, a former winner of The Amazing Race. He noted that he hadn't come out before because it was not just his livelihood to consider but those of his bandmates (which is a bit specious if you ask me, given that gay men made up a huge portion of the boy-band fanbase but, whatever). Bass' reason for coming out? Many suggest that it was on-going, less-than-subtle innuendo on the Perez Hilton gossip site. Hilton repeatedly referred to an affair between "The First Reich" and "Princess Frosty Locks." Nice. When Hilton was criticized for essentially outing Bass, he argued to Access Hollywood that "I know there is some controversy about outing people, but I also believe the only way we're gonna have change is with visibility. And if I have to drag some people screaming out of the closet, then I will. I think that lot of celebrities have an archaic fear that being gay will hurt their career but look at Rosie. Look at Ellen."

Yes, let's look at Rosie. Rosie O'Donnell went from the Queen of Nice to vilified dyke when she and partner Kelly Carpenter made the case for same-sex marriage. Yes, she was strident and shrill, and, yes, the scary haircut and hanging out with Boy George didn't help, but it seems plausible that merely coming out cost her some fans among her suburban mom base. She's back on TV with The View, but her 'likeability' stats have taken a serious hit. And Ellen? When she came out it was big, big news. Cover of Time Magazine big. Her TV character came out too, and after a big spike, ratings quickly dropped. The show was cancelled. It was too much about the gay thing, people said, and not very funny. Ellen's back with an enormously popular talk show, but her own relationship - with the stunning Portia de Rossi - is much more on the down-low than her previous high-profile affair with Anne Heche. And is a female stand-up comedian coming out quite the same as a marquee leading man? It remains to be seen what effect coming out will have on the careers of Harris and Knight (let's just accept that Bass has no career, be he gay, straight or in between) - and there is, as of yet, no test case for a superstar coming out. Cheating, drug abuse, violent tempers, yes - but a little man-love, not so much.

Hollywood is terrified to come out of the closet. That's all there is to it. Back in the day, stars like Rock Hudson and even Liberace put on a hetero face and the media played along - in the same way they turned a blind eye to President Kennedy's affairs. Everyone knew, but no-one talked about it. They just let them play it straight. Not so any more. With the advent of the gossip blog, rumours have taken on a lofe of their own. Online "is he gay?" storied have dogged any number of stars, despite high-profile romances with women. An on-again, off-again relationship with Kirsten Dunst has done nothing to stop the "Toothy Tile" rumours about Jake Gyllenhall. A photograph of married-with-kids John Travolta greeting a male friend with a kiss on the lips was greeted with knowing nods and smirking gloats. Richard Gere and the hampster, Orlando Bloom, Keanu Reeves and so on. The mainstream media has jumped on the outing bandwagon too - South Park famously and repeatedly urged Tom Cruise to come out of the closet in an episode last year. Even athletes like Jeff Garcia, Peyton Manning and Mike Piazza have been the subject of whispers about their sexual orientation. Today's bloggers seem intent on printing all the innuendo they can, always in 'blind' but obvious references like Ted Casablanca's Toothy Tile items on Gyllenhall.

It seems clear that stars worry that coming out with hurt their box office and diminish their appeal as a leading man. I don't know about that. I'll buy Tom Hanks as an astronaut and a World War 2 soldier, and I bought him as gay man dying of AIDS in Philadelphia. I don't really care who he's sleeping with. (Though now that you mention it, the idea of he and Antonio Banderes as a couple is kind of hot - don't tell Rita Wilson I think so). Yet, Hanks is a different kind of star - his movies don't bank on his sex appeal. I suppose it really could hurt a dreamy young star like Bloom, who counts on lovestruck tweens to his box office.

That said, I have no problem with stars who want to keep their private life private. Keeping who you love to yourself is one thing. But hiding who you are by showing up at the Playboy mansion with a busty babe on each arm is just stupid, and hypocritical. By pandering to the lowest-common denominator, such stars are propagating the belief that their orientation is something worthy of being hidden - something dirty, something shameful. And that's just wrong. It's almost as ridiculous as the idea of a gay man so self-loathing he'd pay a former teen-star to pose as the couch-jump-inspiring love of his life, baby mama and wife, just to prove his manliness.


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