For years, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, has presented its Visibility Award to high-profile, positive role models. But the decision to give the award to recently out actor Colton Haynes strikes some activists as premature.
Seeing celebrities come out sends a powerful message to other LGBT people — especially teens who may feel isolated and alone — that they are part of a community and shared struggle. The question for some activists is whether, in the age of legal same-sex marriage and other advances, coming out should be viewed as something worthy of an award, or as a basic responsibility. They argue that we no longer live in a time when celebrities need to hide their sexuality for fear of career repercussions.
“On one hand, celebrities do bring attention,” longtime LGBT activist Danielle Moodie-Mills told TheWrap. “But, it begs the question: Are we still in an age when we’re giving participation awards just for showing up? … Colton Haynes may deserve an award someday, maybe in a couple of years from now.”
A publicist for Haynes told TheWrap: “I think — given the fact that he has a massive following in social media –and given that he has chronicled his coming out via his accounts to millions of young people — it makes good sense to recognize what he is doing to raise awareness about our community. Let’s not always tear each other down?”
HRC did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment. But in a statement on Friday, HRC president Chad Griffin said: “Colton Haynes has inspired countless LGBTQ young people across the country and around the world to live their lives as their authentic selves.”
Haynes is not the first star to get an award for coming out.
In 2013, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was honored with GLAAD’s Vito Russo Award after years of not discussing his sexuality in public.
Haynes, known for his role as Jackson Whittemore on MTV’s “Teen Wolf” and Roy Harper in “Arrow,” came out in a May Entertainment Weekly story that noted that he, “like many others on his path, took advice early in his career to subdue” talk about his sexuality.
In 2011, a photo spread featuring Haynes kissing another guy surfaced online, just as “Teen Wolf” was set to premiere. His lawyers threatened several blogs with legal action if they did not remove the “private, obscene, lewd and pornographic photographs.” The images were from a March 2006 issue of gay photo magazine XY.
In January, a Tumblr post sparked an Internet frenzy after a fan commented on Haynes’ “secret gay past.” Haynes offered a coy reply: “Was it a secret?”
In the EW story, Haynes said part of the reason he didn’t unequivocally come out was that he trying to take time off from the public eye, and had checked into rehab to treat severe anxiety.
“It was a complete shock. I wasn’t ready to be back in the headlines,” he told EW. “I should have made a comment or a statement, but I just wasn’t ready. I didn’t feel like I owed anyone anything. I think in due time, everyone has to make those decisions when they’re ready, and I wasn’t yet. But I felt like I was letting people down by not coming forward with the rest of what I should have said.”
In June, Noah Galvin, the gay star of the ABC sitcom “The Real O’Neals,” slammed Haynes during an interview with Vulture, calling Haynes’ coming out “f—ing p–sy bulls—,” and adding that, “That’s not doing anything for the little gays but giving them more masturbation material.”
Galvin later apologized. Haynes’ said in an Instagram post that Galvin’s comments were “absolutely uncalled for and quite frankly embarrassing on his part.”
Several people who spoke with TheWrap about the HRC award said it isn’t just about praising Haynes for coming out — he is also lending his star power to the event, and helping advance its agenda.
“Attaching a celebrity to the awards gets more eyeballs and attention to the topic,” Scott Martin, who was an active member of HRC Seattle for years, told TheWrap. “It gets more people to talk about it and tweet about it. Colton’s peers, who may still be in the closet, may see the embrace Colton gets and perhaps be inspired to do the same.”
“It’s not about the award,” celebrity blogger and activist Perez Hilton told TheWrap. “It’s about Colton giving of his time and allowing HRC to use his name and likeness to sell tickets and fundraise. He’s directly doing good for the entire LGBT community by agreeing to accept this ‘award.’ They call it an award but it’s really an arrangement. ‘This is how you can help us!’ I’m glad he said yes!”
Neil Giuliano, who served as president of GLAAD from 2005 to 2009, told TheWrap that while he understands HRC’s motives, he wonders whether LGBT groups should focus on people who have achievements beyond coming out.
“These awards are all about getting a name that people would recognize,” Giuliano said. “It gets people talking about coming out. But if it were up to me, I’d give the award to one of the seven openly gay ambassadors serving our country overseas.”
Maybe the award should just be branded as something other than an award, said Chad Kawalec, who is gay and the founder of the Los Angeles-based Brand Identity Center.
“From a branding perspective, if you’re going to call it an ‘award,’ it, by definition, should be attached to some sort of real achievement,” he said.