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Entertainment > Hollywood Still Keeps Some Gay Stars in the Closet

Hollywood Still Keeps Some Gay Stars in the Closet

By Aaron Hicklin The Washington Post


May 29, 2009 - 12:00 am

How did a somewhat goofy, family-style talent show on Fox become a bellwether of America's changing attitudes toward sexuality?

Adam Lambert, a gutsy eye-liner-wearing Californian with a big voice, did not triumph in the eighth season of American Idol. Would he have won if he were unequivocally straight? That is a question we'll be debating for a while. But in many ways, Lambert was the unofficial winner long before he took the stage last week to recap his plaintive version of "Mad World," the Tears for Fears ballad that cemented his reputation as the darling of alternative, androgynous goth-ish tweens. His clean-cut, evangelical Christian rival, Kris Allen, on the other hand, was more "High School Musical" than "Twilight."

One hundred million votes were cast in last week's Idol finale, and though it's premature to interpret Lambert's loss as a referendum on tolerance, his flamboyant persona marked a striking departure from the heterosexual bluffing of 2003 Idol contestant Clay Aiken. While it took Aiken years to come out (he did so last September), Lambert never felt the need to pander to conservative audiences. Although he never came right out and said "I'm gay," his response to photos of him in drag and kissing other men - "I have nothing to hide, I am who I am" - was clear enough, and more eloquent by far.

In the age of Brokeback Mountain and Ellen Degeneres, why does Lambert's sexuality make a difference? That's a reasonable question. But pop music, infused with sex and central to adolescence, counts for more than indie films and talk shows. It's among the broadest gauges of popular attitudes.

Closeted stars

Comparisons between Lambert and Freddie Mercury, the former lead singer of Queen, were premised on his cocksure performance and swooping falsetto, but the pop idols of Mercury's era - Elton John, George Michael, Mercury himself - were closeted at the height of their careers for good reason. We might have guessed that they were gay, but we didn't want to be told.

Today, we're increasingly comfortable with homosexuality, yet the closet still retains a surprising hold on Hollywood and Washington. Gays do very well on reality TV and as affectionate punch lines on sitcoms such as Will & Grace, but where are the out gay action stars and leading men? British writer Carol Ann Duffy, the first lesbian (and woman) to be anointed the UK's poet laureate had a good sense of the public mood when she told the Times of London, "I think we've all grown up over the past 10 years. Sexuality is now celebrated. It is a lovely, ordinary, normal thing." A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a dramatic rise in support for gay marriage. Nearly half of all Americans in the new poll said they favor legal marriage for same-sex couples, an increase of 13 percentage points since June 2006.

Against those shifting attitudes, the resurfacing of Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher - who told Christianity Today last month that he won't allow "queers" near his children - feels comically out of touch rather than menacing. Even his mentor, John McCain, may be softening, to judge from the comments of his daughter Meghan. In an upcoming interview with Out, Ms. McCain draws a solid line between new school Republicans such as herself, who believe in gay marriage, and old schoolers like Wurzelbacher, whom she dismisses as "a dumbass."

With a new president who seems more fair-minded than his predecessors, the miserable practice of using gay equality as a recruitment tool in the conservative heartlands is hopefully coming to an end. A string of victories for gay-marriage proponents in Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire has reinforced the momentum and fueled optimism that California and New York will not be too far behind. It now seems incredible that as recently as 1986 the Supreme Court could have upheld the right of a state to arrest a man in the privacy of his own home for consenting homosexual conduct.

That was the same year in which President Ronald Reagan first brought himself to use the word "AIDS" - five years and 11,000 deaths after the virus was first identified in the United States. In Outrage, Kirby Dick's new documentary on closeted politicians, the Reagan years get critical treatment, as well they should. The 1980s represent a high-water mark of hypocrisy when it comes to discrimination against gay men and women, in which politicians such as Larry Craig - who famously "bumped" feet with an undercover officer in a bathroom stall in 2007 - are portrayed as both victim and perpetrator.


Two years ago, when Out magazine made the decision to launch its Power 50 list of the most influential gay men and women, our cover featured models holding up masks of Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster above the words "The Glass Closet." The denunciations were loudest and swiftest from gays themselves. "Maybe Jodie Foster wants to be known as the woman who has had four Oscar nominations, rather than as a lesbian actress," said the editor of a rival gay glossy, as if those two things were mutually exclusive. Although nothing we said was new - the Washington Blade, among others, had been there before us - we were seen as having crossed a line.

Two years later, however, that line is yielding. This year's Power 50 list has just been published, and while it continues to include several men who take pains to present themselves as straight for mainstream audiences, the reaction to it has changed. Even the addition of blogger Matt Drudge elicited little more than an amused shrug. It's as if with the arrival of a new president - the first to include gays and lesbians in his inaugural address - we're finally bored with the whole pantomime of who is and who isn't gay.

Thirty years ago Harvey Milk challenged gay Americans to come out "and let that world know (for) it would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine." Yet the closet still retains a dismal hold on Hollywood that contradicts Milk star Sean Penn's "You Commie, homo-loving sons of guns" Oscar speech this year. How many publicists and agents in the audience that night - ones that I have dealt with - are complicit in keeping that closet shut tight?

The continued existence of the closet needs to be challenged, not only by a new generation of Adam Lamberts but also by those still trapped inside.

posted on May 29, 2009 1:12 PM ()

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