It's easier for some celebrities to come out of the closet, but being open about being gay comes at a career risk
Are there no gay movie stars?
From Anderson Cooper to Jim Parsons, gay celebrities have been gently pushing open the closet door with shockingly little fanfare over the past year.
Their statements have been so understated that a recent piece in Entertainment Weekly on the new politics of being publicly gay noted, “What was impossible 60 years ago and dangerous 40 years ago and difficult 20 years ago is now becoming no big deal.”
That may be true, but there is one big exception.
In the nearly a decade since Tom Cruise won his second of two "I'm not gay" lawsuits in 2003, Hollywood movie stars remain uniformly heterosexual even as American society and public perceptions of sexuality have visibly changed.
Also read: Anderson Cooper: 'I'm Gay'
Despite the recent matter-of-fact statements from the likes of Cooper, Parsons and Zachary Quinto, no A-list star on the level of a Brad Pitt or Robert Downey Jr. has come out, even though statistically it seems highly improbable that no major actor is gay. Meanwhile, the rumors and lawsuits that have dogged such actors as John Travolta or Cruise may lead the public to their own conclusions.
“We don’t have a leading man who is out,” notes Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com and a publicist who has guided stars through coming-out announcements. “We don’t have anybody in a major professional sport. There is plenty of room to get further along.”
It seems there are still enormous pressures for big-name stars — especially those tied to romantic or action careers — to remain guarded about their sexuality.
And there's an added element: The international market is not as accepting as America is becoming.
The movie business is a globalized enterprise, one that is increasingly dependent on foreign audiences. The question is less about America’s changing attitudes towards gays and lesbians, than the views of places like China, a country that boasts a big population of moviegoers, but one that is not exactly progressive when it comes to same-sex relationships.
For the film business, not much has changed since “My Best Friend’s Wedding” star Rupert Everett told the Daily Mail in 2009 about his coming out: “It just doesn't work, and you're going to hit a brick wall at some point.”
“The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business,” Everett said.
Although Anne Heche made waves when she went public as Ellen DeGeneres’ girlfriend in the mid-'90s, her career faded along with their relationship, and the major movie actors who are openly gay remain supporting actors like Ian McKellen and Quinto.
It is no coincidence that the majority of the household names who have come out publicly have been television stars. After all, from DeGeneres’ ground-breaking declaration that she was a lesbian 15 years ago up to the portrayal of a happily married gay couple on ABC’s “Modern Family,” the small screen has been one of the most open, accepting and barrier-shattering parts of Hollywood.
That may have to do with demographics. Television's prize age group is viewers between 18 to 34 years old, and a recent Gallup poll shows that 66 percent of people in that age bracket believe gay marriage should be legal.
“Young people set the ad rates,” Bragman told TheWrap. “These were the kids that grew up with ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Queer Eye.' Well, you can’t watch ‘Will and Grace’ and ever be threatened by a gay person again.”
The same is not as true for the world of athletics, movies nor music genres like rap and country.
“There are pockets of acceptance that are more robust than others, but [coming out] is not a non-nonchalant thing," Chely Wright, an openly gay country singer, told TheWrap.
Wright came out in 2010 to an onslaught of media attention, but also softer record sales, demonstrating that, at least in terms of country singers, there is commercial risk to being openly gay.
That makes Frank Ocean’s revelation this week that he is bisexual all the more extraordinary. Ocean is not only African-American, but he is a hip-hop singer — two constituencies that have historically been slower to accept, even openly hostile to gays and lesbians.
That may have been the reason for the unusual way in which Ocean choose to come out. Instead of issuing a statement or sitting for an interview, he wrote a lyrical blog post about his attraction to a male friend when he was 19. Wright argues that Ocean’s decision to provide such a personal look at his own sexual awakening had a lot to do with his audience.
“His constituents were a lot like mine,” Wright said. “Country and hip-hop are on the same latitudinal line on LGBT issues, so when you give the news to a fan base that might not understand, you have a responsibility to explain yourself and to explain what gay love is about. It’s not just who you have sex with, it’s who you go to a movie with or play Scrabble with.”
In contrast, Cooper, Parsons, Quinto and "White Collar"s' Matt Bomer seemed to take pains to downplay the drama surrounding their announcements. That may have to do with the fact that being gay and a celebrity is no longer novel, but it may also be that many of them were, to borrow a phrase from Slate’s June Thomas, “openly closeted.”
That is partly attributable to the rise of snarky blogs like Gawker and Perez Hilton that both capture celebrities in private moments with loved ones and feel none of the compunction about speculating about stars’ sexual orientations that once constrained the press.
With the internet, any closet, it seems, is made out of glass.
“We live in a very transparent world,” Bragman said. “It used to be someone would say privately that they saw so-and-so in a gay bar or had sex with them, now we have text messages and emails, and that changes things.”
In turn, more traditional media outlets have abandoned the non-aggression pact when it comes to closeted celebrities. When OutWeek Magazine chronicled Malcolm Forbes’ gay lifestyle in 1990 shortly after the media baron’s death, it set off a wave of hand-wringing. But things have changed dramatically.
Media publications rushed to publish that Jodie Foster had come out of the closet when she thanked a female friend in a 2007 speech at The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment breakfast, even though she never said she was gay. Foster continues to keep her sexual orientation private.
Yet the growing ease with which stars of the small screen are opening up about their sexuality may eventually inspire some of their big screen brethren, as well.
"It wasn't that long ago that playing a gay character was practically the kiss of death for an actor's career," Bil Browning, founder and publisher of the gay politics and culture blog The Bilerico Project, told TheWrap.
"[That was] a concern even as recently as ‘Brokeback Mountain’ where Mark Wahlberg turned down the lead because he was 'a little creeped out' by the gay theme and worried about his future career. Celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris, Anderson Cooper, Matt Bomer, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are proving daily that LGBT people are simply a part of the fabric of life."