Monday, November 02, 2009

On This Tedious Business of Celebrities Coming Out

Honestly, even I can't tell you why I react so strongly to these stories of coy non-denials much more than I do those deeply closeted Scientologist types, but I do. Trust me, I'd rather shut up about this too, but when it seems like we're so close to this finish line of actors and performers being able to come out without fanfare or controversy, stuff like Adam Lambert playing peek-a-boo with the press or the current (admittedly minor) dustup over Matthew Bomer seems all the more frustrating.

When Jason posted pics of Matt Bomer (currently starring on USA's White Collar, which I've got DVR'd but haven't watched yet) making out with a guy, my first thoughts (after, you know, HOT) was that one of the effects of living in the Facebook age -- besides how one ill-advised Mardi Gras can cost you a job and how athletes can no longer snort coke off a groupie's tits in anonymity anymore -- is that it's now become even more pointless to be closeted as a celebrity since there is almost certainlyphotographic evidence to the contrary out there somewhere. Be that good or ill, it's a fact of life, and if it discourages actors from living a lie, it's ultimately a good.

(My second thought, by the way, was how happy Bomer looked, in that young, drunk, "I really kinda like this guy" way.)

But besides the usual "Is he out? Did I know this? Does everybody know this? That's kinda cool" dance, I was mostly just impressed by how little hue and cry there was about it. No kneejerk denials. No disingenuous articles wondering if it would harm Bomer's career. When a little quick Googling revealed people kind of already knew, I felt heartened. Felt too soon, as it turns out.

As chronicled at Boy Culture (and Queerty), friend-of-Matt Sean Akers has seemingly taken a tour of blogs posting the pics and asked that they be taken down, on the grounds that they're old pics of Matt and an ex-boyfriend and are, as such, embarrassing to have out there today. Taken at face value ... okay. I can see the impulse to keep private photos private, of course. And Akers has made sure to say, at each and every pit stop on his tour de blog, that Bomer is gay and out and is not trying to hide it.

So what am I complaining about, then?

I don't know if I can say for sure. Is it because this whole thing has taken on the character of a co-ordinated P.R. campaign, which makes it feel less like a friend trying to help out another friend than a publicity team trying to sweep something under the rug as quickly as possible? (In fact, as Boy Culture and Queerty both report, Bomer's publicist refused to comment on the photos because they "don't comment on clinets' personal lives.") Is it because this kind of thing never, ever, ever, ever, ever happens with straight celebrities? Ever? I get that "private lives are private." But that sentiment doesn't sound at least a little disingenuous when it's used in service of a refusal to acknowledge something that's plainly obvious and should not be treated as a negative? At some point in an actor's career, when they've reached the point of starring in multiple major network TV programs, doesn't he (or she) kind of realize that a bit of gossip on their personal lives is going to happen? Why is it only the gay lives that need such steel-reinforced shelter around them?

I like Matt Bomer. I have since Traveler. I'm not posting these pics as a gotcha. I'm genuinely happy to hear another actor is gay. And, if his overly vigilant but well-meaning friends are to be believed, out. But I'd rather his publicist not be sending mixed messages, and I'd rather not get the impression that the wagons are being circled on account of two relatively innocuous photos.

This isn't one of those posts where I feel like I have something to say. This is one of those posts where I feel I have something to ask. Is something like this worthy of my annoyance? Is it realistic to expect explicit forthrightness from gay celebs? Is it fair?

I'm looking for an actual conversation about this in the comments, so if you're just looking to yell or whine or snark about how caring about how the discussion is beneath you, please don't bother.


Alice said...

That first photo is hot.

I was having that conversation recently, about Kevin Spacey. In London, it's considered general knowledge that he's gay (I'm not sure about in the US), and gay celebs aren't really news here.

My friend was insisting Spacey was publicly out, and I was insisting that he's not. My friend eventually realised that, although he doesn't chase down and deny rumours, he's never acknowledged officially that he is gay.

Then we got talking about could we name any A-list celeb who is openly gay, and we really came up short, which is depressing.

That being said, I don't know how I feel about celebs being forced out of the closet. When we reach a point where American audiences can see an openly gay male actor as a straight male lead in a romantic comedy, then it won't affect their career prospects, but we're not there yet.

That's part of the reason why I'm loving the Barney/Robin romance on HIMYM - they're super hot together, and the fact that Neil Patrick Harris is gay is completely irrelevant.

Rinaldo said...

You asked, so: No, I don't feel that this is worthy of your annoyance. We're in a fuzzy in-between era on this subject, times are changing quickly and unevenly, and I don't feel entitled to demand that everyone be on the same page instantly, when the pages have turned so fast. It's coded deep in agents' training not to open their mouths on this subject. (Remember the NPH case, where his agent flat-out denied it, and then a day later Harris himself declared otherwise? -- against heavy advice, I'm sure.)

Each new case advances things a little more, and I do hope that soon now there'll be a hot young leading man who's totally out and raking in millions at the box office. But it hasn't happened yet. Rupert Everett's big-screen career vanished right when he went public. Cheyenne Jackson remains Broadway's little secret; however many movies and series he's up for, in the end he doesn't get them. NPH is an interesting almost-test-case, and maybe I'm wrong, but the over-the-top stylization of HIMYM seems to save him from being taken seriously as a hetero romancer. As with his Harold and Kumar persona, it's all a big goof.

Still, I'm interested to see how each new instance goes. But I don't think we're at the point of "who cares, it doesn't matter" yet. It really does seem to be career suicide (as a romantic leading man, at least) to come out officially. Until the first time when it isn't.

Jennifer said...

On the one hand, I totally see where you're coming from. But I feel like we're in this place where what it means to be "out" has become a strange thing. I heard an interview with Melissa Etheridge awhile back where she said she was so surprised that people "didn't know" she was gay and that she had to "come out." The questions from reporters were a total shock to her. She'd been out for years and before being signed, mostly played in lesbian bars. Suddenly, it was this big mystery and it made it seem like she was hiding something when really she didn't even realize right away that it was even up for debate.

I guess my point is, sometimes people really are out, and then they get famous, and then the press gets coy and you're suddenly faced with coming out again. And coming out to people who won't necessarily be supportive as those surrounding you were in the first place. It's a tricky situation.

Jon said...

There are different degrees of being out of the closet (or in the closet). There are people who outright lie and deny being gay, or who act out cover stories to appear straight. (And these are also the people who seem mostly closeted in real life, except for the occasional wrestling match with a rentboy.) I've read tons of interviews with Bomer, and I've not seen him do that.

And then there's the people who won't respond to the question at all, and just assert that they won't discuss their personal lives. (The Jodie Foster approach, although she is happy to discuss her kids on chat shows.) And I can respect that as a life choice. But it rankles, because so few straight actors make that choice. They're always happy to discuss their marriages in interviews, and even the ones with non-famous spouses bring them to events. The fact tht so few gay actors are willing to live their lives in public view makes it seem as though there's something shameful about being gay that needs to be hidden, even if they're not actively lying about it.

I'd love it if the next gay actor to come out did it not through press release or an interview with a major magazine but just by bringing his/her partner to an event. Just live your live in the normal (although somewhat abnormal) way that every other actor does.

Anonymous said...

I don't know that this is worth your annoyance, honestly. I agree the friend is being overzealous, but I can say that if I was Bomer, out or not, I wouldn't be thrilled if pictures of me and an ex making out were flying all over the Internet. If I was Bomer's current partner I definitely wouldn't be thrilled. Its not so much about closeted/open as it is the past relationhsip.

Joe Reid said...

I'm really enjoying/appreciating these comments, guys. Go us.

Alice: Kevin Spacey falls under a similar umbrella, yes. It also brings up why I get less annoyed with celebs like Jodie Foster and (to a lesser extent) Anderson Cooper, who don't confirm anything but aren't denying it or squashing stories. And yet, they sure would make excellent and high-profile role models. And yet, I'm not sure I believe in the idea of celebrity "role models." And yet, and yet, and yet.

Rinaldo: I hear you. But I'm not sure if we should be looking at Rupert Everett's case as a universal. Just as we can't look at NPH's success as a universal. This is the problem -- the sample size is just too small. We won't know until we have many, many out actors and actresses. Though, yes, it's not entirely fair to ask any one of them to be a guinea pig.

Jennifer: On the one hand, there is definitely a difference between being privately out and publicly out. But part of me feels like if you lead a public life, there is some expectation that you be publicly out. Is that fair? Maybe not.

Jon: To be fair, I have not read those Bomer interviews, so in that way his relative anonymity has maybe led me to overreact here. But honestly, my problem (if I even have one) isn't with Matt Bomer, it's with his publicity team.

Anonymous: I do get the embarrassment factor, but a) making a big deal about getting the pics removed is almost guaranteed to make them a bigger deal. And b) You don't see Angelina Jolie asking that pics of her and Jonny Lee Miller be scrubbed from the public record. The idea that this wouldn't happen with a straight actor is what I keep returning to.

Roommate Mark said...

I agree with Rinaldo. While I certainly understand (and to some degree share) your frustration that it always seems an issue when a celebrity comes out (or gets outed), I also feel like we can't expect the culture to get immediately up to speed with a new, "it's all good" take on gay celebs. There are just so many different attitudes about gayness in America, you know?

As trite as it sounds, we have to have patience with the slowness of change. We have to keep pushing forward, of course, but getting irritated with people for not changing as quickly as we'd like them to is only going to make us crazy. Things have changed for gay people in the last few years, and even if the steps forward are small, they are still steps forward.

Joe Reid said...

I'm not sure it's the slowness of change that's frustrating me here. I'm not talking about the bigots here. They can be on their own timeline as much as they want to, we'll all be waiting here when they finally show up. My frustration in this case comes for the people who do -- or at least should -- know better.

The "keep pushing but accept the slowness of change" thing -- while something I do believe in and have written about before -- can be an odd balance to strike, particularly for us pushers.

jessica said...

I think there's no right way for a celebrity to come out, honestly. Not yet. More often than not it's a circus -- a Time Magazine, TMZ, national security circus. And if the celebrity in question would like to avoid said circus, more often than not the pendulum swings wide in the opposite direction, the celebrity is too private about his or her love life, and there is backlash regarding how insulting that is to the general public, as if the celebrity is living a lie.

The thing is, there will always be conflict surrounding the nature of being celebrities, and how much intrusion into their personal lives is too much. A gay celebrity is going to encounter that as much as a straight one, but will perhaps feel it more strikingly because of the different levels of homosexual acceptance within their families, their colleagues, their fans, and the public at large.

I don't think you're wrong to be frustrated. I find it frustrating too. But I also don't think we can expect everyone to think and feel and act the way we might want them to. Which is maybe the most frustrating part.

Oh, and Alice? I think the second photo is hotter than the first. More intimate, more telling. VERY sexy.

Jon said...

Maybe there's always going to be a short-term circus when a gay celebrity comes out, but once you get past that, they seem a lot more free and relaxed. All of the celebs who have come out or been dragged out all seem to be at the point where they can bring their significant others to events or talk about them in the casual way that we all talk about our romantic partners. A celeb can say he/she doesn't want to go through that circus, but would they rather keep having that uncomfortable fight with their partner every time they have to leave him/her behind to attend an awards show or premiere?

(And in any case, I think that circus gets smaller and smaller with each coming out. The only outings that would make big news now are the ones of people who are famous for denying that they're gay.)

Helen said...

A thought - maybe it's not really Bomer who objects to the photos, but the ex? Maybe the (non-celebrity) ex is not out; maybe they are mostly, but have a conservative boss, or a bigotted grand-parent who they'd prefer doesn't know.

It changes the question a bit (but doesn't help answer it at all), if it's not Bomer who is driving the attempt to shut the story down.

Anonymous said...

It's possible that the guy would like to be quietly gay without feeling the pressure to be anyone's spokesperson. With as charged as the climate currently is, having those pictures circling around increases the likelihood that he'll be called on to speechify, which is often a damned if you damned if you don't scenario.

And while he's been on the scene for a few years, I don't think anyone could call him famous. I recognize his face but wouldn't have been able to tell you his name if you'd offered me a thousand dollars. Maybe it's along the same lines of not mentioning in a job interview that you go to a therapist every week: it's not shameful, nothing's wrong with it, but it's something you save to tell people when they've gotten a chance to know you first so that it doesn't become the only thing they know you for.

Joe Reid said...

I totally get that. Nobody should have to be anybody's spokesperson (though it would be great if we could ALL be, right? takes the pressure off).

But to follow your analogy, if I came up to you and said, "Hey, I saw you exiting my shrink's office, do you see Dr. So-and-so?" and you said "I'm not going to answer questions about that," I'd be right to assume you were at least a little embarrassed/ashamed of being in therapy, right?

Lester Freamon said...

There are tons of straight celebrities who keep their private lives more or less private, particularly when their partner isn't a celebrity. We just don't hear about them very much because they're good at it. Who is Jon Stewart's wife? Or Amy Adams' husband? Jon Hamm's wife?

Jon said...

Jon Hamm's partner is Amy Westfeldt -- there are tons of pictures of the two of them on the red carpet together. Jon Stewart's wife is named Tracy -- there are tons of pix of the two of them together online, plus news bits about pregnancies. Amy Adams's fiance is Darren Legallo -- there are lots of pix of them together, and People ran a story about their engagement.

And that's the point. There are straight actors who are relatively low-key about their romantic lives. But only gay actors seem to feel the need to keep their romantic lives completely out of the public eye. Which can't help but make it seem like they're ashamed.

Joe Reid said...

Jennifer Westfeldt. Excellent point, regardless.

Jon said...

That's what I get for researching Amy Adams at the same time I was writing the bit about Jennifer Westfeldt.

Joe Reid said...

I figured.

Dan Mac said...

Will no one consider the straight girls? What a blow this must be to them.

There are tons of straight celebrities who keep their private lives more or less private, particularly when their partner isn't a celebrity. We just don't hear about them very much because they're good at it.

As already noted, we hear about them, and generally no one cares.

I'm not sure it's apples and apples when comparing straight celebrity couples and gay celebrities. There's no gotcha! to be had revealing that Jon Hamm dates the girl from Kissing Jessica Stein, you know? The stakes are a lot lower for them being seen out in public, because TMZ's not going to make any money documenting them. And I don't think shame is necessarily a part of it. Living a relationship in the public eye is going to put stress on it, whether it's hetero or homosexual, but again, the stakes are lower for breeder couples so it's safer for them to be open. Jon Stewart probably doesn't worry about fame spoiling his marriage because the paparazzi aren't lining up to snap him making out with his wife. But Anderson Cooper? I don't think it has to be shame that keeps a gay celebrity from wanting their relationships to be public. The better analogy is probably a gay celebrity and a media darling couple like Pitt/Jolie; that's the kind of scrutiny Amy Adams won't have to face, but Kevin Spacey likely would.

Can any of us, straight, out and otherwise, consider a situation where we wouldn't want everyone knowing who our partners are? So can't we extrapolate for celebrities? Maybe a much younger/older or a new or shy partner. Maybe I'm out at work, but only to the people with whom I interact on a regular enough basis that we discuss our personal lives, so like the Etheridge example, I have many co-workers who don't know I'm gay, and that's pretty much out of my control. Is it permissible for me want to skip the company-wide Christmas party, rather than be burdened by other people's reactions to seeing me with my partner, even when those reactions aren't bigoted? I feel like maybe that's what it would be like to be a gay celebrity. You're out with your partner getting coffee at the Malibu Starbucks and going out to eat, but the red carpet at the Oscars might be a drag for reasons that have nothing to do with shame.

if I came up to you and said, "Hey, I saw you exiting my shrink's office, do you see Dr. So-and-so?" and you said "I'm not going to answer questions about that," I'd be right to assume you were at least a little embarrassed/ashamed of being in therapy, right?

Not necessarily. I think I could tell you I'm not going to answer questions about it because we both know that that much is self-evident, but I have no intention of answering any followup questions, which to take this analogy to it's logical conclusion would start with "For what are you being treated?" I'm not ashamed of being depressed, but that doesn't mean it's any of anyone's goddamn business. You'd draw a line on what questions you'd answer, and I don't think it's shame that would drive one to establish that line early and firmly before it crossed into private territory.

Rinaldo said...

I'd be right to assume you were at least a little embarrassed/ashamed of being in therapy, right?

Like Dan Mac, I don't see that that follows. I might be protective of my privacy and really not want to talk about my therapy at all.

As Jennifer said, there are so many degrees to out-ness. Celebrities do seem disingenuous sometimes to say "I thought everybody knew" when they've been careful never to actually say the words to the press. (And on this subject, the press still observes its traditional gentleman's agreement until told otherwise.)

We're at an interesting point where more and more young actors have been leading open lives through college, in regional theater, off-Broadway, etc., and have no intention of changing their tune if they start to become more recognizable. One of them is probably going to make the breakthrough and have it be a non-issue in their wide appeal as a romantic hero. But it hasn't happened yet.

The "keep pushing but accept the slowness of change" thing...

I have to endorse this. We'll never stop pushing, of course. But I've lived long enough to see unimaginable change, and even in the last decade things have changed with a speed I would never have predicted. But (even though I'll never stop trying) they can't be forced beyond a certain tempo. But of course there's no knowing what that tempo is without pushing it.

Anonymous said...

It's absolutely a mistake to think that not answering questions outside a shared shrink's office indicates embarrassment/shame. Millions of people see therapists, they're still strangers to me. Even if we have something in common, it does not mean that we have a bond that will make me more willing to share private information with you.

Also, private things differ by person. I won't talk about money to anyone, even my closest family, whether I'm doing well or poorly. Other people don't hesitate to share salary details with strangers. I don't mind talking frankly about sex, other people can't even use euphemisms. It's usually a bad idea to gauge someone else's actions with your own perceptions.

Joe Reid said...

I fear I've set us off on a tangent with the therapy comparison. I'm not saying you'd be expected to divulge what you discuss in therapy, nor particulars of any kind. But if I see you exiting shrink's office, and I'm like, "Oh, so you see a shrink?" and instead of saying "Yes," you say "I'm not going to answer that," that's gonna seem overly evasive, no?

Also, Dan Mac, do you really think a Kevin Spacey would get Brangelina-style coverage if he came out? Really? Neil Patrick Harris is out with a boyfriend and he seems to get around okay. TR Knight couldn't have had a more circus-y coming out, and I don't recall seeing anything like a paparazzi blitz for him after too long.

Jennifer said...

I do think it's going to be interesting across the board. People are coming out younger and younger, famous or not. I find the "gentleman's agreement" thing, interesting, as I think it is a huge part of the problem. I mean, theater analogies aren't as helpful, but I didn't know we *didn't* know Jonathan Groff was gay. And while it's not in any way a big story in the b'way world, it was still reported as news. I wonder how many of those reporters knew, but abided by this "agreement." I wonder how different things would be if they didn't.

Which is all to say, I think sometimes the difference between being privately out and being publicly out is created by us, not the celebrity. If everyone around you has always known you were gay, and suddenly all the new people talking to you are being vague, using non-gendered pronouns, and refusing to ask you about your relationships, it must be very very strange. How exactly do you negotiate that?

(And this is not me advocating "outing" people, just that maybe we could do a better job of not "inning" them.)

Tom said...

Joe: Do you think it largely has to do with an actor's general requirement of having mass appeal to get more famous? I mean, right or wrong, it would seem like we're still in a place where revealing such would just turn off a lot of the country. And, when you live a life where your pocketbook is directly defined by your public appeal, that it's just not worth it. Like -- a singer can have an excellent career being out because one million albums sold is a great album. He can turn off 299 million people and be fine. On the other hand, a 1.0 TV rating or a $8M opening weekend is pretty craptastic.

Or, in another vein, maybe it's just not a headache they personally want to deal with? Like, maybe that Jodie Foster simply doesn't want it to be the thing that suddenly defines her? NPH, for example, do you think it's a coincidence that he came out while he was in the midst of playing maybe the most hetero character on television other than Charlie Sheen? He was able to come out at a particular moment while he was being defined as this super hetero ladies man... and it kind of all went away because of the mass public's tendency to equate character to actor.

Dan Mac said...

I think "overly evasive" is a much better way to characterize your therapy analogy, which I still think is a good one. You can't really say why one would be overly evasive, whether it's shame or something else, but I'm with you that extreme evasion is at best tedious and at worst... almost insulting.

And you're right, my Brangelina example probably went too far, and your TR Knight counterexample I think deep sixes my argument. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi seem to get around just fine, too.

Although, as long as there's the perception that gay celebrities will face a media circus when they come out, they'll stay closeted, even if the reality says otherwise. I can't be the only one who makes that mistake in perception. It's like the perceived threat of the media may be blinding celebrity gays to the reality: that in fact it's not so bad, being openly out anymore.

And therein lies your frustration, right? That it's this legacy of fear that has less and less basis in today's reality that seems to dictate how a gay celebrity manages his public persona. I guess I've talked myself around to seeing your point, and I agree.

Jennifer said...

I wonder if the fact that those who come out tend to not face the kind of Brangelina level scrutiny is part of the reason for the frustration. Like, maybe people are waiting for someone to come out and get attacked (verbally) and have to stand and fight and demand that jobs not be taken away. And that hasn't really happened (not sure how far Rupe's career was going to go, out or not). So there's this perception that gay actors aren't doing enough--when possibly there isn't as much to be done as we assume?

Joe Reid said...

Speaking purely for myself, I'm not looking for actors to do anything but not deny/evade/duck when asked a question.

allthatlam said...

I wanna say that gay celebrities in the USA realize that their being homosexual is still a steaming controversy in this country, and if their publicists are any kind of smart then they realize this too. Hence the complicated dance around the subject. If that comment his people made when contacted about the pictures saves him a hundred thousand fans throughout the country than it was the wiser choice. It's not like this guy can afford losing them. It's still quite early in his career/attempt at fame & glory. If he wants to come out to the media about his sexuality and make it clear to americans that he enjoys the meat pipe then he'll do it when the time is right as advised by his management.