When I came out of the closet and declared to my family that I was a homosexual at 19, I had just moved to San Francisco. Not yet ravaged by the Plague, the city was an infamous gay Mecca, still drunk on the relatively recent advent of gay liberation. As an introduction to the city I took one of the “self-help” workshops popular at the time, a seminar particularly attuned to gay men, where a final exercise involved writing your parents to let them know you’re gay. Because all my interest in theater and disco wasn’t enough. Coming out was framed as an act of the Gay Revolution, a passport to freedom from guilt and stigma.
It sounds good on paper. But like so many things, the reality was bracing. My mother’s response was an award-worthy display of feigned shock. “I had no idea,” she wrote back to me unconvincingly before imploring me not to say anything to my stepfather. And while her apparent ignorance seemed preposterous, her idea of gay men was based on effeminate celebrities she’d seen in movies and on TV, like Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde and Alan Sues. None of these supporting actors ever actually declared they were gay, they just portrayed quick-witted men who wore jaunty scarves, not handsome enough to seem sexual or masculine enough to be seem threatening.
However while there are now several popular actors who’ve come out as gay, the most notable probably being Neal Patrick Harris, none of them are seen as matinee idols. A number of leading men still manage a double life, juggling their public image with their hidden orientation. I recently watched the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential in which 1950s screen idol Tab Hunter provides a glimpse into the machinations involved with being a closeted movie star in that era. He gave an interview this week revealing more. Coming out as we know it today was not an option. However, Hunter says how he worked around the complications and even managed to have relationships, including with actor Anthony Perkins who was pursuing his own star trajectory.
And while Confidential shows us an idealized and noble version of how Hunter handled the pressures of being gay, much of what he says is sincere and thoughtful. In particular he’s adamant about how the decision to reveal his sexual orientation was ultimately his alone. It’s a truth increasingly overlooked when people talk about coming out as the worldly stigma is minimized and people become flippant. The consequences may be less drastic but it’s still a personal call.
Recently the young gay actor Noah Galvin, lead in the sit-com The Real O’Neals, was publicly chastised for remarks he made in an interview about fellow actor Colton Haynes. Haynes had just come out as gay himself in a rather subdued way, an act Galvin described as “fucking pussy bullshit” (he has since apologised). His sneering at the milquetoast manner of Haynes’ admission is in stark contrast to the long avoidance by the film industry of the idea there are gay men at all, particularly male actors who hope to be leading men.
It could seem puzzling that a business that depends so heavily on the talents and gifts of gay people would be obsessed with obscuring the true sexual orientation of it’s leading players and public faces. Usually this boils down to some variation of “the audience won’t believe so-and-so is playing a straight man if they really know he’s gay”. Its an amusing ploy on the film industry’s part, feigning concern over our belief in a hero’s sexual desires while he or she is surrounded by flying dragons and belligerent aliens.
Who, exactly, is this mystery audience confounded by movie leads acting straight? Gay men would believe it. Hell, we’re experts on that grift. I can’t imagine women really care. The ultimate concern of course is that precious young male heterosexual demographic, the one whose buying powers are legend. Just knowing your screen hero is gay could call into question what it means to be masculine, what it means to be yourself, what it really is to be a man who is honest about who he loves. Perish the thought. What would ever happen then?