The Glass Closet

9.22.2008

By Michael Musto

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Out.

"Bravo, Jodie Foster!" That cry has long sounded among easily charmed gay celebrity watchers from Hollywood to Gotham. After all, Jodie is one of the original out-but-not-really-out queens of 'at least.' You know: She's never come out publicly, but at least she's never tried to claim she's straight either. She's talked incessantly about her kids, but at least she hasn't named the father and tried to make it sound like he was any kind of love interest. She won her greatest acclaim for a movie protested by gay activists'The Silence of the Lambs'and reportedly refused to do a short film based on the lesbian classic Rubyfruit Jungle, but at least she isn't afraid to play tough women, single moms, and parts originally written for men (even if that might be what she mostly gets offered).

And though her '92 Oscar speech for Lambs seemed to confirm her tenacious belief in the semicloset ('I'd like to thank all the people in this industry who have respected my choices and who have not been afraid of the power and the dignity that entitles me to'), at least she's never threatened lawsuits when press people drag her out of it!

By all reports, Jodie lives an out life'within serious limits'while cagily avoiding any on-the-record revelations, a delicate dance that's difficult to pull off'but not nearly so much so as double-bolting the door and living a total lie. Jodie, it turns out, is one of the foremost residents of a glass closet'that complex but popular contraption that allows public figures to avoid the career repercussions of any personal disclosure while living their lives with a certain degree of integrity. Such a device enables the public to see right in while not allowing them to actually open the latch unless the celebrity eventually decides to do so herself.

The glass closet is nothing new in Hollywood. Back in the 1920s and '30s, leading man William Haines was gay in everything except magazine interviews. (He was, in fact, as gay as any star was allowed to be in that era, and when he crossed the line'getting arrested in a gay incident and then refusing to hook up in a fake marriage'his acting career was kaput.) In the '70s performers like Paul Lynde and post-Liza Peter Allen similarly went as far as seemed possible, hinting around at their sexuality and even making appearances at various gay spots. But they could be certain the squeamish media wouldn't push things any further by addressing that, so they remained flamboyantly, ambiguously glassed off. And today, the press still gives a free pass to people like Good Morning America weather anchor Sam Champion and CNN presence Anderson Cooper, helping to keep their glass doors shut so they can lead gay social lives while carefully skirting the issue. The media has a field day with all kinds of oddballs, but the earnest TV-news presences'whom everyone has a crush on'get 'protected,' even though Cooper has been seen in gay bars in New York and Champion sightings have long been reported from Fire Island to the Roxy.

The glass closet seems to make a perfect fit for a lot of celebs today, when gay is inching toward becoming more OK in the entertainment world. In an increasingly gay-tolerant environment, these stars can enjoy actual relationships, they don't have to constantly dredge up opposite-sex dates (other than their mothers), and after a day of pretending for the cameras they can go back to almost being themselves.

But at the same time, the stars aren't willing to make the jump to being officially labeled queer and all that it represents in the business. Douglas Carter Beane's timely play The Little Dog Laughed'which ran earlier this season on Broadway'had a wily lesbian agent, Diane, not only angling to heterosexualize her client's breakthrough movie role but trying to do the same thing to the client himself. I wasn't surprised to read at least one review that seemed to think Diane was a winsomely heroic 'fairy godmother'!

She was more like a Machiavellian deception queen who's terrified of shattered glass, though some closet-busting survivors might say she had a point. In his memoir, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, Rupert Everett describes losing jobs in About a Boy and Basic Instinct 2 specifically because he's openly gay. (And no, in the latter case, he probably didn't dodge a bullet. A quality art-house director was set to helm it at that point.)

What's more, Everett deserved an Oscar nomination for My Best Friend's Wedding, but the Academy generally frowns on out gays playing gays'it's not really acting, after all. Though Sir Ian McKellen broke the curse in 1999 with a Best Actor nomination for Gods and Monsters, actual trophies have been reserved for 'courageous' straights playing gay, like William Hurt, Tom Hanks, Hilary Swank, Charlize Theron, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as if it takes courage to accept career-defining roles most actors would die for). Alas, whenever another X-Men movie rolls around, no one says, 'Wow, Sir Ian was so brave to play straight! What a stretch!'

'I think there are four kinds of gays in Hollywood,' explains Howard Bragman, CEO of the PR firm Fifteen Minutes. 'There's the openly gay; the gay and everybody knows it but nobody talks about it; the married, closeted gay who doesn't talk about it; and the screaming 'I'll sue you if you say I'm gay' person.' In other words, the no closet, the glass closet, the cast iron closet, and the closet you get buried in.
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In the case of the Windex people, says Bragman, 'A lot of actors are afraid of being defined by their sexuality. In Hollywood they don't cast by positives, they cast by negatives: 'This one's too this or that.' And actors don't want to give red flags. They're actors and want to talk about their mutability, not their personal lives.' (Except for their adorable children, their busy workload that precludes any relationships, and their utter admiration for Kylie Minogue.)

These glass-housed actors, he adds, 'are comfortable with their decision because they feel like they're living honestly.' But if someone who's struggling with the sexuality issue comes to Bragman, he'll advise them to totally come out. 'Their career may be different and less lucrative,' he says, 'but everyone I've seen come out has been happier as a result of it.' Of course, in Hollywood 'less lucrative' and 'happier' don't generally appear in the same sentence.

Bragman handled the coming-out campaign for former NBA star John Amaechi, who Bragman says has lived openly but never came out publicly because it would have thrown the team balance off-kilter in the same way a straight headline-grabber like a divorce does. But the basketball star is now retired and promoting his new book, Man in the Middle, so the glass is no longer required.

In a phone interview the U.K.-raised Amaechi'who played for the Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz and now works as a psychologist'explains to me his longtime lifestyle. 'I was a regular at gay places on the road,' he says, 'from WeHo to [the New York City bar] Splash. It's not as if I was hiding.' And he'd bring gay friends'and even a partner once'to the backstage area where his teammates would invite their wives and girlfriends. What's more, he says, 'If someone asked me if I was gay, I'd either joke and say, 'You're not pretty enough. You've got nothing to worry about,' or I'd tell the truth. I never lied. I even told a reporter once, but he didn't report it.' Through much of the '90s the 'Peter Allen free pass' was still in full operation across the boards.

But why stay covered in glass and not come out even more openly back then? 'I talked to people about it'my friends, mostly,' Amaechi says. 'Some suggested it was a very good idea to not come out. I was worried about my career and what it would be like walking through stadiums. In 30 states I could still have been fired for being gay, without recourse. There's no protection for discrimination'though that's going to change with the new Congress.'

A different type of stadium star, singer Clay Aiken, parried a question from Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America:

Sawyer: For three years now, everyone has assumed the right to ask if Clay Aiken [is] gay? Everybody assumed that what has really been happening in these last few years with you and what's probably going to happen right here today, in this next couple of weeks, is that you are ready to come out and say you're gay.

Aiken: That would not make any sense for me to do that.

Not long afterward, on Larry King Live, when the host asked him 'hypothetically' if it would affect his career if he were gay, he responded 'hypothetically, I don't think so.'

A longtime target of Web gossip, Aiken has become adept at deflecting questions about his sexuality'often by phrasing his answers as questions. But when a man came forward last year professing to have hooked up with Clay for sex after responding to an ad, the press went wild ('Clay Is Gay,' trilled the National Enquirer). As other celebrities have discovered, in cyberspace no one can hear your denials. Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris broke out of glass last year partly because of intensive Web chatter, and neither seems the least bit hurt by his emergence.

But at least'yeah, there's that phrase again'he hardly denies it anymore. Maybe Clay figures that takes him a step away from his most famous song title, 'Invisible.'
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Surprisingly enough, the concept of being semi-sort-of-out has even infiltrated the ranks of the Republicans. Pioneer outing journalist Michelangelo Signorile feels that 'in the Republican Party now, the glass closet is OK. It's like 'just don't talk about it or announce it.' It's progress, but it also still makes being gay something you really shouldn't talk about.' But things got extra sticky when people started asking questions about then Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman's sexuality. At first, Mehlman refused to answer any questions, which only fueled the discussion, until he flatly told a New York Daily News reporter, 'I'm not gay.' The fact that he parried the question for so long, wrote Washington blogger John Aravosis, was in itself unusual. 'I can't recall many, if any, straight men who refuse to acknowledge that they're straight'if anything, most are a bit too obvious about it'and that ultimately leads to speculation, caused by Mehlman's own failure to respond to a direct question posed by a reporter.'

Keeping the glass up is a high-maintenance job, especially since many celebs are left to do it'or, more often, screw it up'alone. Bragman swears there are no meetings between stars and their handlers to strategize whether or not they will stay glassed off. That would explain the various slipups that happen when the luminaries take their own images by the balls. I was wildly amused some years ago when the terminally noncommittal Sean Hayes was asked by a newspaper interviewer what he likes in a partner and he blurted out that he's 'not into that gay ideal of musclemen.' This from the guy who refuses to label his sexuality. Whoopsy! (Though he can always say 'Well, I said I'm not into the gay ideal.') Meanwhile, the more circumspect David Hyde Pierce is quoted on the Internet Movie Database as saying, 'My life is an open book, but don't expect me to read it to you.'

I also loved the blind item in the New York Post a few years ago about how a more calculating star goes into premiere screenings with his female date while his male trainer enters separately and, when the lights go down, switches seats to be next to the star. Good try'but obviously the charade was shabby enough to eventually make it into print.

A popular argument in favor of celebs not going on the record with their gayness is that these people deserve privacy, after all. 'It's nobody's business but theirs,' onlookers counter'usually while devouring a trashy tabloid.

It's true that stars are free to put up whatever walls they want in order to maintain boundaries with the public. But even at their most controlling, straight stars never seem to leave out the fact that they're straight in interviews. Whenever a subject tells me, 'I won't discuss who I'm dating' or 'I resent labels,' I generally know not so much that they're passionate about privacy but that they're gay, gay, gay.

Are the glassy'or ambiguous'stars tortured? Sometimes. It must be weird to be, say, Wanda Sykes and turn up with gal pals at New York City's gay lounge Beige and at Fire Island discos while seeming to exude a hope that no one notices enough to ask whether you are or aren't. But if played right, there are benefits to the high-wire act. As Signorile disdainfully puts it, 'Anderson Cooper has finessed it where straight women who have a crush on him think he's straight and gay men actually think he's out. [The glass closeters] are able to play different niche audiences to whatever sexual orientation those people want, and they believe it!'

Once again, bravo! (said with rolling eyes). When halfheartedness is used as a career move, there's little to cheer about, especially when truthin' could be the road to real relief. As newfound lesbian Cynthia Nixon told New York magazine after coming out, 'If someone is chasing you, stop running. And then they'll stop chasing you.' So come on, people, just say the words. Or just mouth them. At least.

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