Originally appeared March 18, 2001, in the Los Angeles Times.
RIGHT NOW, there's a teenager somewhere in this country standing in his parents' basement holding a homemade noose. He's already tied it to one of the rafters, and he's working up the courage to hang himself. Somewhere else, maybe a mile away, maybe a thousand miles away, another kid is sitting in a closed garage in the driver's seat of her parents' SUV with the windows down and the engine running. Waiting to die. She, like the boy with the noose, is just one of thousands of American teens who will take their lives this year. Almost a third of them are gay and have been driven to this act of desperation because they think this condemns them to a lonely, miserable life on the fringes of respectable society.
As the Academy Awards approach, it might be nice to pause for a moment and remember those kids because they, like us, are watching the stars, looking to them as role models. They're looking for a signal from idols that will tell them they aren't doomed to be outcasts all their lives. This alone might give them hope enough to stay alive.
For generations, Americans have looked to celluloid celebrities to learn everything from how to fall in love to how to rebel against authority. Naturally, our obsession with the actors we see on-screen spills over into real life, making it almost impossible for Tinseltown's leading ladies and men to have anything resembling a private life. Some celebrities squawk about this, but most of them concede, good-naturedly, that they are in the business of public image-making. In exchange for fabulous wealth, worldwide fame and the public's undying adulation, they've got to put up with the paparazzi following them into the toilet. This seems a fair, if Faustian, bargain.
Given this, it's always seemed laughable that some celebrities - when asked about their sexual orientations and why they aren't explicit about them - say that their sex lives are nobody's business. This is a convenient lie. They know all too well that being a public figure makes everything about them everyone's business. Moreover, they know that their celebrity grants them great power in influencing the public on matters of political import. Hollywood stars often take great pride in being poster people for a good cause, but rarely when it might cost them something personally.
Hollywood has been tormented by homophobia for decades. Everyone knows that Ellen DeGeneres is not the only gay person in Hollywood. But most Americans would be amazed to learn just how many of the stars being held up to them as heterosexual icons are really gay. The fact that they would be amazed is exactly why it's so important that the celebrities concerned publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation. Doing so would shatter the prevailing notions of what a gay person looks like, acts like, sounds like, lives and loves like.
And there are few things that would make a bigger difference in the lives of young gay people, especially those who are driven to despair by the ingrained prejudices of their families and communities. Imagine what it meant when Rock Hudson was outted, and finally boys whose fathers had ridiculed them as sissies could point to this archetype of masculinity and say, he and I are the same.
There are also few things that could do as much to change the public's fears of and distaste for gays, especially now, when activists are pushing so hard for the right to marry, to be open about sexual orientation in the military and to be able to visit their loved ones in the hospital.
Bigotry has power only over perceived outsiders. When the myth of gays as the "other" is eradicated and when gays are seen as part of the mainstream, prejudice against them will of necessity abate.
And so I challenge any and all conscientious stars to take their same-sex lovers, companions, partners or "friends" to the Oscars this year as an act of solidarity.
Will it compromise their box office appeal? Maybe. But wouldn't it be worth it if it saved someone's life? Besides, how rich do you have to be before you'll consider it an acceptable risk to do the right thing and make a powerful statement about something as odious, rampant and downright deadly as homophobia?
C'mon Hollywood, show us you're not just limousine liberals. Do something more than wear a ribbon on your lapel. Stand up and be counted.