Some high-profile gay actors have exited the closet recently and the fan reaction has been ... almost nonexistent.
A gay man playing a randy heterosexual on TV? The industry still has its problems but viewers are just shrugging.
On the most recent episode of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” T.R. Knight’s character eloped to Las Vegas with his gorgeous girlfriend. One week earlier, after repeated rounds of vigorous sex, he proposed to her in a scene that was romantic, believable — and groundbreaking.
Knight is an openly gay actor — now. He outed himself to People magazine after co-star Isaiah Washington uttered an anti-gay slur on the set of their ABC series last October. Yet nearly all the attention to the controversy has focused on Washington’s transgression.
There’s been nary a comment about Knight’s own love life. Instead, fans are reveling in the sparks flying between his character and Dr. Torres (Sara Ramirez): “I hope she says yes. I really think he loves her!” said a recent posting about the characters’ engagement on the show’s chat room. “They’re such a nice couple!” raved another.
Clearly these are no longer the days when Rock Hudson had no choice but to feign interest in starlets in order to protect his career.
“Things have changed,” Ellen DeGeneres, whose coming out a decade ago was a major cultural moment, told Knight last month on her talk show.
Knight isn’t alone in having his sexuality greeted with a public yawn. Last November, actor Neil Patrick Harris described himself in a brief statement to People magazine as a “contented gay man.” Past “American Idol” finalist R.J. Helton made a similar announcement weeks earlier, and former N’Sync star Lance Bass did the same last August.
Each became barely a blip on the pop-culture radar.
It's still 1957 in casting offices
The mellow response to these celebrity self-outings is a far cry from what happened after DeGeneres’ “Yep, I’m Gay” announcement on the cover of Time magazine. Back then, some predicted the end of DeGeneres’ career. Ten years later, she’s anything but unemployed: She’s hosting next month’s Oscars, currently helming her own Emmy-winning talk show and serving as one of the celeb faces of American Express.
Strangely enough, some gay actors say that while America’s comfort level has improved considerably, the entertainment industry hasn’t caught up. It may be 2007, they say, but the vibe inside studio casting offices can feel surprisingly like 1957.
These actors say being outed remains a huge threat to a performer’s career, particularly for men. An announcement, even a rumor, can eliminate them from the running for straight roles — the roles that make up the vast majority of available work.
“I have friends in the industry — casting directors, for an example — who are gay, who will not cast another person and the reason given is, ‘Oh, he’s too gay,”’ says veteran performer Andre de Shields, an openly gay actor who’s earned two Tony award nominations. “A lot of this has to do with self-loathing.”
Despite its reputation for leading the world down a hedonistic path, “Hollywood is one of the most homophobic places on the planet,” de Shields says. “And these are the folks who could make the biggest difference in artists’ lives.”
Established gay male stars like Rupert Everett face this kind of bias (as Everett laments in his recent autobiography), as do those still making their mark.
“I was told I was ‘too light’ for ‘Judging Amy,”’ says Kevin Fabian, an openly gay actor who has appeared on episodes of “The West Wing,” “Will & Grace” and other prime-time shows. “I looked at the casting director and said, ‘Have you watched your show?”’
That sort of experience leaves gay actors questioning how much progress has really been made.
“From an actor’s point of view, I understand why they are scared to death of saying anything for fear of being pigeonholed,” says casting director Matt Messinger. “Gay people are cast as straight all the time. But if you’re asking if things have improved for openly gay actors, I can’t say it’s any easier now.”
When Knight revealed his sexual orientation last fall, he offered a brief but pointed statement: “I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me.”
For actor and singer Kye Brackett, the decision to mention his bisexuality to casting directors comes down to exactly Knight’s point: Will industry people be so distracted by the fact that he dates men that they won’t see him as a performer?
Brackett remembers seeing a billboard for the Tom Cruise film “Born on the Fourth of July” in 1989.
“There was a whole rumor that had begun about Tom Cruise being gay. And I remember driving up the street and seeing his picture and my first thought was, ‘There’s Tom Cruise. He’s gay,”’ says Brackett. “All these things he actually worked for got immediately overshadowed by a rumor. ... Who would want to deal with that as an actor?”
Because of that bias, Brackett says, agents are unlikely to recommend openly gay clients for straight roles. “They don’t want to be the one who says, ‘This person is gay and that’s fine.”’
Despite the risk, some actors feel there’s little choice but to deal directly with their sexuality. Fabian says he temporarily hid his sexual preference during acting school. The result, he says: “My acting was terrible. You’re constantly putting layer on top of layer.”
The current crop of tabloid magazines and nightly entertainment-news shows have brought the decades-old fascination with performers’ personal lives to a new level. They love focusing on the subject of who’s gay and who isn’t, though there appears to be a double standard in their approach.
Actresses may acquire a bit of positive buzz and be “seen as sexy” after rumors of gay romance, says Lillian Faderman, co-author of the book “Gay L.A.” But men in the same situation are perceived differently.
“Things have certainly improved for women in Hollywood, but far less so for men,” says Faderman. “But it’s interesting that the most prominent examples I can give — Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, Lily Tomlin — they don’t play romantic leads.”
A National Enquirer cover last August trumpeted “Hollywood’s Secret ‘Gay List”’ in bold, black letters above photos of various leading men. Inside, they reported the estimated odds of these celebrities coming out.
Network executives, Fabian says, fear negative coverage in the tabloids. And they prefer not to cast openly gay actors in straight roles because they want those tabloids to publicize their stars’ social lives positively.
“You go in for a pilot, and you’re told the casting director loves you, the producer loves you,” says Fabian. “Then you go to network, and you have to sign your 5-year deal first. I think that’s where the real discussion is going on: ‘We really liked him, but ... he’s really funny, but ... how can we get him out there with the girls when he’s sitting home with his boyfriend every day?”
Knight’s case will be an interesting litmus test of whether recent celebrity outings will encourage the industry to change its approach.
Before his announcement, Knight had already developed a fan base. TV viewers have also warmed to Harris’ performance as a straight, womanizing character on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” now in its second season. Comments posted on imdb.com describe Harris as the best thing about the show.
Should these shows run for several more years and audience support remain strong, Hollywood may have no choice but to continue offering both men the straight romantic roles they play so well.
That could open a door to broader casting options for all actors, something Fabian would welcome. “In the end, I want to work. I want to be successful as an actor,” he says. “I want to have vacations and not worry about the credit cards not working.”