Non-political Actors: A Theory

I don’t know or care a lot about whether this actor from “Empire” is gay or not.  His non-reaction to a general sense that he is gay seems like a replay of what we went through with Sean Hayes back in the day.

But I have to say I think I can understand the reluctance of some young actors to be publicly and irrevocably identified as homosexual.

It’s not because of the closet — at least not these days.  Whether or not we’ve reached critical mass on gay acceptance, it is clear to most people in Hollywood that it is not only possible to be openly homosexual and have a successful career, it can even get you some favorable press.  In any event, we are long past the days of Rock Hudson.

The bigger challenge for a gay celebrity these days in coming out is the fear of being commandeered by the gay political establishment as the Latest Model.

For the last half century or so, lesbians and gay men have had to live in an artificially politicized world for the simple reason that the laws that were so harmful to us needed to be challenged by someone, and it pretty much had to be us.  Very few heterosexuals worried about having sodomy laws used to blackmail them, and it took a generation of constant effort to get people to see that the lack of legal recognition for our relationships was, in fact, a problem for us.  Those efforts have paid off in record time.

But here’s a fact that a lot of politically active people don’t always understand.  Many people didn’t want to be political, or didn’t have the inclination in that direction.  All those years of yelling, “Out of the bars and into the streets!” were a recognition of that fact.  At lot of people did get out of the bars and into the streets, but it was only because they were persuaded how vitally important that was.

Once established, political activism can become just another bureaucracy fighting for its own continued existence.  That’s perfectly fine for those who live for controversy and grievance.

But what if that’s not your thing?  In a world where sexual orientation is far better understood (though there are notable exceptions), lawyers and postal workers and bakers and nurses have the luxury of leading lives as private as they choose.  For actors or others in the orbit of celebrityhood, though, a certain amount of publicity is their oxygen.  It’s also the oxygen of the activists, who tend to resent the closet because they have to respect it.  Outing has always been controversial because it violated that necessary respect in a context where being openly gay would have the most value.

But we have a more than adequate supply of good, great and even superlative role models who are openly homosexual now.  The almost unbelievable progress we have made in both improving the law and opening the culture has broken through the silence that equalled death and a multitude of other gruesome, painful and noxious consequences.

Which is why I’m willing to give celebrities who want to avoid being coopted by the gay political establishment a break. There are actual gay politicians now, the professionals in this sport.  And there are enough high-profile homosexual celebrities that we don’t need every actor out there to publicly declare and risk conscription.

14 Comments for “Non-political Actors: A Theory”

  1. posted by Doug on

    Please provide proof for your statement that gay celebrities are afraid of being commandeered by the political establishment. I’ve seen no evidence of that. It may happen on an occasional basis but I do not believe it is wide spread.

  2. posted by Houndentenor on

    I can’t imagine that anything mentioned above factors into the calculation of public figures (actors, singers, musicians, athletes, etc.) coming out. The primary concern is “will I still get work”.) I can’t fault someone who is up for romantic leads worrying that they will be limited. Neil Patrick Harris’s career seems to have skyrocketed since coming out, but could he have been cast as Barney on How I Met Your Mother if he’d been out already? Would Matt Bomer have landed White Collar as an out gay actor? I’m going to guess probably not. Ellen’s coming out can be seen as political perhaps, but the internet has changed the closet. The mainstream press would play along with the open secret of one’s homosexuality. The internet changed that game. Being in the closet now means REALLY being in the closet, not just refusing to comment while being seen all over town with one’s romantic partner. It was funny how openly some of the “closeted” stars were in the 1990s. Everyone seemed to know and yet everyone was supposed to pretend it wasn’t true. It was a kind of absurdity and built into that game is a deep-rooted homophobia. After all, if there’s nothing wrong with being gay, then why must it be a secret. The press certainly didn’t shy away from reporting on marital problems of stars. It was treated as too shameful to report. For better or worse, that has changed. I understand that some people like their privacy. I like mine as well. But the double standard of reporting on the private lives of heterosexuals while treating those of homosexuals as off-limits was strange and those days are over. Personally I have no taste for the tabloid press (print or online). The glee with which the trashier elements of the media went after Sandra Bullock when her marriage was in trouble was revolting. I don’t care for that much either. Not everyone benefits from coming out. For every NPH there’s a Clay Aiken whose fans dropped him like a hot potato when they found out he was gay. (How they didn’t already know is beyond me but it seems they didn’t.) Given theprofession risk in coming out, I think that’s a decision best left to the individual. There are no guarantees, especially in show business.

  3. posted by George Worthington on

    It is not that his “fans” didn’t know that Clay Aiken was gay. When he came out as gay, he put an end to their fantasy of a talented and good heterosexual. In the mind of his “fans” homosexual and good don’t go together. If you remember your Rock Hudson history that was exactly what his “friends” in the industry said. When he developed AIDS and was subsequently outed many people expressed surprise because they always thought he was such a good man, meaning, of course, that they never guessed that he was gay. Same with CH “fans.” To them, good and gay didn’t go together. When he came out they either had to disowned their beliefs and bigotry or him and they chose to drop him. It is as simple as that. If you are a bigot, there is only so much cognitive dissonance that you can stand.

    Further, Hollywood is first and foremost a commercial enterprise; creativity and art are way down the list. Being out remains a problem from a commercial standpoint with unconscious bias being what it is, the threat of buycotts notwithstanding. That said, I have a real problem with the efforts of Hollywood to construct a public persona that is mostly heterosexual if not asexual in an effort to make the actor as commercially appealing as possible. No one has an obligation to come out; everyone has a moral obligation not to hide. There is a difference. I go see films for the script first (I like a good story), then the editing, directing and acting. I don’t care or fantasize about the actors; the characters they portray maybe. I might shun their films if the actors were found guility of violence or other crimes, but that is far as the relationship between actor and audience should go in my mind.

    If someone has a problem being open about themselves, they have a problem they need to work on. If someone has a problem with an actor being gay and portraying heterosexual leading men and women, then those people are bigots and should be called out. Film is not history or real life, It is entertainment and should be approached that way.

  4. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    Coming out, in the sense that Harvey Milk used the concept (“Burst down those closet doors once and for all, and stand up and start to fight.“), is inherently political, because every time one of us comes out to our family, friends and neighbors, the straight people who know us have to confront our culture’s attitudes toward gays and lesbians, and the laws that discriminate against us.

    I don’t think that there is any doubt at all that our “almost unbelievable progress” is largely due to the fact that scores of thousands of gays and lesbians who decided that “enough was enough” over the last decade or so, and came out much more publicly than they had been, doubling or tripling the number of people who knew they were gay or lesbian, and engaged in conversations with those who knew them about the effects of anti-gay discrimination on our lives.

    The number among us who became actively engaged in politics — who became “homosexual activists”, to use the terminology of the anti-gay movement — was small, but we owe much of what we have gained to the quiet courage of those thousands upon thousands of ordinary men and women who supported the political fight by coming out.

    Coming out is still (in my opinion, anyway) the single most important thing a gay or lesbian can do in this fight, which is far from over. We have not entered a “post-equality” world in which coming out is unimportant. The anti-gay forces that we have battled for years are still active, and we are looking down the barrel of a prolonged struggle against “massive resistance”.

    I don’t believe in “outing” anyone, but I do believe that coming out and being out is just as important now as they were a decade ago, and the most important weapon in our arsenal to fight bias, bigotry and discrimination. I respect those who make the decision that coming out entails too much personal risk to do so, but I don’t respect those who can safely come out and choose not to do so for what seem to me to be inherently selfish reasons.

    In another decade, we may live in a world where coming out is no longer important. But until then …

  5. posted by Jorge on

    Coming out, in the sense that Harvey Milk used the concept (“Burst down those closet doors once and for all, and stand up and start to fight.“), is inherently political, because every time one of us comes out to our family, friends and neighbors, the straight people who know us have to confront our culture’s attitudes toward gays and lesbians, and the laws that discriminate against us.

    Reminds me of that expression that choosing to do nothing is still a choice.

    It’s a rather sad thing. I’d rather do a “nothing” where people do not assume I’m straight.

    I lost most of my old rainbow bracelets so it’s time to order some again.

    Coming out is still (in my opinion, anyway) the single most important thing a gay or lesbian can do in this fight, which is far from over.

    I agree, with two caveats.

    Every person has a different fight, both for themselves and for what they want in the world. What Mr. Link says is correct.

    Coming out is often multiple actions than a single action, but even so, let us assume that it is important. That does not make coming out a zero sum game. It is something that has the unique quality of one’s own character, priorities, and judgment. If coming out is truly an important action, It is somewhat important to get it “right”, and that’s different for everybody. Outing someone without their permission takes away from that and will probably lead to the other person reclaiming their initiative and personhood.

  6. posted by Mike in Houston on

    At a certain point I suspect that even the American public will get to the same point that the British are when it comes to actors being one thing on screen (acting) and another off… and as we’ve seen with NPH and others, that time may well be here — despite what people’s handlers are telling them.

    When celebrities “come out” it’s pretty much a one and done process – however messy. Their choices after that regarding “activism” are their own and should be respected.

    For the rest of us, “coming out” isn’t just a one-time thing… it’s a continuous process throughout our lives and the choice to live authentically can have serious consequences — career, housing, friendships, familial relationships, even one’s personal safety. On the whole, I believe you can’t be truly “equal” without being “out” — and that the benefits outweigh the negatives… but that’s a personal choice that should be respected.

    For anti-gay public figures or politicians that are in the closet, however…

  7. posted by Dale of the Desert on

    I will agree with Stephen that celebrities should be granted privacy for their private lives, but has he ever considered that being a celebrity is not an all consuming part of their personalities and lives? They have careers (and sometimes talents) that the public celebrates. But like most of us, after work they go home to their personal lives and families. Whether gay or straight, they want their personal lives to be personal, not public. And in most cases it has nothing to do with political matters, about which they may or may not feel strongly. And it may have nothing at all to do with closets.

    • posted by Francis on

      Actually, this is David Link writing. I’ll leave it to the people who have been here longer to spot the differences between the two.

      • posted by Dale of the Desert on

        Whoops, you’re right. Thanks for correcting me. It doesn’t change the basic idea that many famous people, regardless of their sexuality and regardless of their politics, simply value their personal privacy.

    • posted by Tom Scharbach on

      But like most of us, after work they go home to their personal lives and families. Whether gay or straight, they want their personal lives to be personal, not public. And in most cases it has nothing to do with political matters, about which they may or may not feel strongly. And it may have nothing at all to do with closets.

      I can easily understand that celebrities have as much interest in keeping their personal lives private as the rest of us, but I don’t understand what that has to do with sexual orientation.

      Straight celebrities seem to have no problem going home after work and leading private lives, for the most part, although the celebrity rags cook up all sorts of nonsense and gossip about them, most of it absurd. I don’t understand why it would be any different for gay/lesbian celebrities.

      In fact, I don’t think that it is.

      Think about gay/lesbian celebrities who are out of the closet — Rachael Maddow, Ellen DeGeneres, Ru Paul, George Takei, Adam Lambert, Chris Colfer, Ricky Martin, Elton John, Lance Bass, Neil Patrick Harris, Rupert Everett, Jane Lynch, Melissa Etheridge, Nathan Lane, Cynthia Nixon …

      What do you know about their private lives? Anything at all, to speak of? Anything more than you know about straight celebrities? Probably not.

      So I don’t understand what it is that gay and lesbian celebrities think it is so important to keep private, other than the fact that they are gay or lesbian. And my question is why?

      I suspect that it has less to do with privacy than it does with marketing. Although we have come a long way in the last decade in terms of “coming out = yawn”, entertainment market segments remain where homophobia is rampant, and gay/lesbian celebrities marketing to that segment have a strong financial interest in keeping very, very quiet.

  8. posted by tom jefferson III on

    I really doubt it is too much of a political issue and much more about a glass ceiling within the entertainment business.

    Sir Ian McKellen was probably one of the first openly gay actors in to star in a major Hollywood blookbuster (namely the Lord of the Rings trilogy) as well as the X-men trilogy.
    In America male actors whose career is built on being the leading man in some sort of summer blockbuster have been especially keen to “protect” their reputation from anyone stating that they are gay.

  9. posted by Don on

    Great thread.

    I believe there are two points I could add to the debate. 1) I saw in a documentary recently that only 5% of film/television actors make more than $5k/year. 95% are not making a living. Anything that makes those nearly impossible odds more against you (coming out) makes any career move a tough choice.

    2) Those making a good living off of their celebrity (the acting 1%) have traded their private lives for fame and fortune. While newer members of that select group almost always grumble at the high price of fame in the form of invasive press, seasoned pros have long called it “the price of fame.” Every single one has the ability to drop out at any time. The money and the good press attention leaves with the return of obscurity and privacy. And so we see some drop out, take the money and run, but so many more cling onto that rare air that wealthy celebrities breathe. They hire publicists to keep people talking about them. Because more buzz = more money.

    Notice I made no mention of the G/L component at all. Every single star would like good press that never pries and reports only what they want them to report. Guess what? So do politicians. Guess what else? Never happens. Get in or get out.

    And one of the biggest topics of conversation for entertainment celebrities? Who are you dating/marrying/divorcing? How exactly to G/L celebrities get a total pass on the biggest topic there is? Remember when all those young celebrities kept getting pictures of their vaginas “accidentally” showing as they got out of limos? Luckily, that epidemic has passed. Such terrible press! How on earth did that keep accidentally happening?

    As for “being co-opted” by Big Gay, I simply say: BET. The entire channel was created for black people to find themselves and identify with their stories. To follow black actors and entertainment. Stories never cease about the glass ceiling for black characters, lower prices paid for black actors, claims that some films are just “too black” and there is “not enough of a market for that.” Have they been co-opted by the black political establishment?

    Straight, white people do not flock to such outlets looking for representation because they are EVERYWHERE. They have never felt a dearth of representation of their lives/stories/heroes.

    There is a market for G/L lives/stories/heroes. And the entertainment business sells that product. True, it is a niche market. But opposing a free market to sell a product people hunger for (gossip stories/movies/heroes) is the antithesis of conservatism for me.

  10. posted by Tom Jefferson III on

    Point 1: Funny, if you talk about the sexual orientation of an actor, you probably cannot seriously turn around and say that you don’t care. If no one cared, then no one would be have the ‘is he or isn’t he’ conversation.

    Point 2: I really don’t think that the ‘gay political establishment’ is on the radar of most LGBT actors who are in the closet. Actors who do come out, do not seem to have to do much beyond (in terms of aiding the political establishment) being seen at a few trendy parties (which sometimes may have something to do with a charity)…which I suspect is not much different from the standard pattern of most successful celebrities who want to ‘socialize’ and ‘network’ outside of social media.

    Part 3: The reality is that openly gay male actors generally don’t get the opportunity to do certain film/TV roles. Women can “flirty” with being bisexual or a lesbian and generally still get a wide range of different roles, particularly in the big action/adventure films. It is a different ballgame entirely for gay and bisexual men.

    Sir Ian Mckellen is probably one of the first openly gay men to play a leading character in a big budget, action packed, block buster. Not only was the Lord of the Rings and the X-men films very successful, but their was lots and lots of merchandise i.e. the Gandowlf action figure, Magneto Halloween costume, etc.

    Actors tend to come out when they have a certain amount of job security, to soften the blow of prejudice hurting the bottom line. When they come out early in their careers, they generally fall under a glass ceiling.

    Fear of the big, bad “GAY POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT” is probably not something that the actors fear too much.

  11. posted by craig123 on

    If you think small businesses being forced by the state to provide services to same-sex weddings isn’t much of a problem, than why such hysteria over the Indiana bill that would (wait for it) protect business from being forced by the state to provide services to same sex weddings? Well, here’s one example. Clap and cheer, progressives. Clap and cheer.

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