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The amazing invisible men of show business.

With lesbian performers and athletes leading the way out of the closet in the entertainment industry, can gay male icons be far behind?

When the cultural history of the 1990s is written, it may be known as the era of the lesbian icon. Beginning with k.d. lang's coming-out in 1992, the entertainment industry has seen the emergence of a constellation of openly lesbian performers, most notably rock superstar Melissa Etheridge Melissa Lou Etheridge (born May 29, 1961, in Leavenworth, Kansas) is an Academy Award-winning and two-time Grammy Award-winning American rock musician and singer. Career
Etheridge has released ten albums since signing her first major recording contract in 1987.
 and television actor Amanda Bearse Amanda Bearse (born August 9, 1958) is an American actress, director and comedian. She is known for her role as wacky neighbor Marcy D'Arcy (formerly Marcy Rhoades) on Married... . With Ellen DeGeneres Ellen Lee DeGeneres (born January 26, 1958) is an American stand-up comedian, actress, and currently the Emmy Award-winning host of the syndicated talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

DeGeneres has hosted both the Academy Awards and the Primetime Emmys.
 now joining their ranks, the power of the icon only grows. Here, after all, is someone who carries a network series through the charm of her own quirky personality. Not many entertainers with that kind of influence and visibility have had the balls to say publicly, "I'm gay."

Least of all, it appears, gay men.

Lost in all the hoopla hoop·la  
n. Informal
a. Boisterous, jovial commotion or excitement.

b. Extravagant publicity: The new sedan was introduced to the public with much hoopla.

 over the coming out of DeGeneres and her character has been recognition of how few men have come even close to occupying a similar position. With so many high-profile lesbians in the entertainment industry, it's fair to ask: Where are the men?

"It seems to be the last taboo," says Leonard Maltin, a film critic for TV's Entertainment Tonight. Even some actors who may be identified as gay because they consistently play gay or effeminate ef·fem·i·nate  
1. Having qualities or characteristics more often associated with women than men. See Synonyms at female.

2. Characterized by weakness and excessive refinement.
 characters have been unwilling to discuss their own sexual orientation sexual orientation
The direction of one's sexual interest toward members of the same, opposite, or both sexes, especially a direction seen to be dictated by physiologic rather than sociologic forces.
 publicly. And certainly, says Maltin, "men who play nominally or presumably pre·sum·a·ble  
That can be presumed or taken for granted; reasonable as a supposition: presumable causes of the disaster.
 heterosexual roles still feel great risk about coming out."

It's not, of course, that there are no openly gay male entertainers in the '90s. There are, for instance, British actors such as Sir Ian McKellen Sir Ian Murray McKellen, CBE (born May 25, 1939) is a British stage and screen actor, the recipient of a Tony Award and two Oscar nominations. McKellen is best known to moviegoers in recent years for his roles as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings  and Nigel Hawthorne--superb craftsmen whose standing rests on the appreciation of a select but narrow audience. Even in the less ratified sphere of American popular culture, due credit must go to such brave exceptions as Dan Butler Daniel Bruce Butler (born December 2, 1954) is an American actor known for his role as Bob 'Bulldog' Briscoe on the long-running TV series Frasier as well as "D-pop" on the television show "Handsworth High" , a regular on the NBC NBC
 in full National Broadcasting Co.

Major U.S. commercial broadcasting company. It was formed in 1926 by RCA Corp., General Electric Co. (GE), and Westinghouse and was the first U.S. company to operate a broadcast network.
 sitcom Frasier, and Mitchell Anderson For the American basketball player also named Mitchell Anderson, see J. J. Anderson.

, who has a recurring role on the Fox series Party of Five.

But the exceptions, on closer examination, prove the rule. Only one out gay male performer has achieved icon status: Elton John Sir Elton Hercules[1] John CBE[2] (born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on 25 March, 1947) is a five-time Grammy and one-time Academy Award-winning English pop/rock singer, composer and pianist.  (another Briton). And John, whose definitive coming-out statement came relatively late in his career, stands on a lonely pinnacle where others have refused to join him.

Insiders say there certainly are closeted clos·et·ed  
Being In a state of secrecy or cautious privacy.
 gay men among the ranks of top-rated entertainers in their prime. But so far they have not followed the lead of their female counterparts, despite the evidence that coming out has done nothing to hurt the popularity of lesbian stars. The perception is that male entertainers face an entirely different set of consequences, based on an entirely different set of barriers and taboos.

"I think that might be the conventional wisdom," says Anderson. "Maybe it's true. I hope it is not, thank you very much."

But if those barriers and taboos really do exist, what are they? In Butler's words, "It's all the old stuff."

The list of questions gay male entertainers ask themselves about coming out is practically endless, says Butler: "What will it do to my public? What does it say about my masculinity? Am I just killing myself as to future jobs because of all the discussions that will happen in back rooms between producers and directors?"

Underlying all those questions are basic assumptions that society makes about men and about gay men in particular--assumptions that are far different from those made about women and about lesbians.

"Gay men are seen as abdicating their masculinity, opting out of the power role," says David Ehrenstein David Ehrenstein (born February 18, 1947, in New York City) is an American critic who focuses primarily on issues of homosexuality in cinema. His father was a secular Jew with Polish ancestors, and his mother was of African American and white Irish descenthttp://www.laweekly. , a film critic currently writing Open Secret: Hollywood Homosexuality and the Closet, a book about gay life in Hollywood to be published next year. That perceived loss or rejection of masculinity is regarded, Ehrenstein argues, as both contemptible con·tempt·i·ble  
1. Deserving of contempt; despicable.

2. Obsolete Contemptuous.

 and dangerous.

By contrast, says Betty Berzon Betty Berzon (January 18, 1928- January 24, 2006) was an American author and psychotherapist known for her work with the gay and lesbian communities.

Berzon was among the first psychotherapists to assist gay and lesbian clients.
, a lesbian therapist and author in Los Angeles Los Angeles (lôs ăn`jələs, lŏs, ăn`jəlēz'), city (1990 pop. 3,485,398), seat of Los Angeles co., S Calif.; inc. 1850. , "lesbians are less of a threat to society at large." Indeed, says Berzon, lesbians find their orientation less of a threat to themselves than gay men do.

"Men are socialized so·cial·ize  
v. so·cial·ized, so·cial·iz·ing, so·cial·iz·es
1. To place under government or group ownership or control.

2. To make fit for companionship with others; make sociable.
 to believe that masculinity is so closely associated with sexuality that to do something that is about your sexuality About Your Sexuality, or AYS, was a sex education course published by the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1970, with further revisions in 1973, 1978 and 1983.[1] The course materials were originally developed by Derek Calderwood.  is a comment on your masculinity," she says. (Berzon's point is underscored, some would argue, by the fact that lesbians are now sometimes portrayed in popular media as feminine, yet the same media almost never concede the existence of masculine gay men.) "Men's roles are much more rigidly defined in this society than women's," says Berzon, "so sometimes women can make changes that men can't."

Nowhere does that awareness of sexual roles carry more weight than in Hollywood. While the assumption seems to be that the danger for a gay man coming out lies in the reaction of his fans, "it's a good question," says Maltin, whether the real peril might not come from the power brokers--still, for the most part, straight men--at the studios.

"People always say that men are the decision makers in this town," says Anderson. "That may be true, and the idea of two men having sex is a bit too gross for them to handle."

That's not equally true of lesbian sex, says Michelangelo Signorile Michelangelo Signorile, pronounced "seen-yoh-RILL-ee", (born December 19, 1960), is a gay American writer and a national talk radio host whose program is aired each weekday across the United States and Canada. , author of Life Outside and other books about gay life. "Men having sex with each other is much more threatening to most men than women having sex with each other," he says. "To many men, the next step after the idea of men having sex is those men coming after them."

Perhaps for all the wrong reasons, straight men do not look at lesbians in the same light. "To straight men, two lesbians is at the most something that doesn't matter or at the other extreme something sexually arousing," says Signorile. "On some level for them there's something erotic about lesbians and something very scary about gay men."

"Straight men can be titillated tit·il·late  
v. tit·il·lat·ed, tit·il·lat·ing, tit·il·lates
1. To stimulate by touching lightly; tickle.

2. To excite (another) pleasurably, superficially or erotically.
 by two women," agrees Butler. "Also, women are not as upset about it."

And while female actors may be expected to fulfill stereotypical roles as sex objects, male characters are more consistently required to be heterosexually driven, even in roles other than romantic leads. "In the movies," says Signorile, "even the nerdy guy has to get laid."

While coming out of the closet may pose a greater threat to men than to women, staying in offers advantages to men that it does not offer to women. If the decision makers are all straight men, a gay man who keeps his mouth shut will look like he belongs to the same club.

"With gay men it's a question of giving up my privileges in society by coming out, because by staying closeted they have all the privileges of men," says Signorile. "Lesbians, as women, even if they're closeted, don't have those privileges."

"Men are always more important in the entertainment industry," says Berzon. "Women have to work harder to be a success." Forced to confront sexism, lesbians may decide to confront the closet as well.

AIDS, which has forced some gay entertainers out of the closet, has also reinforced the stigma attached to gay male sexuality by associating it in some people's minds with illness and death. Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury presented the unpleasant spectacle of coming-out-as-obituary. And since Hudson in particular was the first major Hollywood figure to come out, the process was tainted from the outset. Matters have hardly improved since: When Olympic medalist Greg Louganis came out in 1995, for example, as much attention was paid to his HIV-positive status as to his orientation.

Such pressures do nothing to help a notoriously insecure group of people surrounded by a retinue of managers, agents, and hangers-on who are both dependent upon their clients' success and intent on bolstering their egos. "People are constantly telling you what kind of image to project," says Ehrenstein. "People tell you how transcendent you are, how you can walk on water. They're also telling you, `Listen to me, darling, stay away from it.'" Unlike lesbian performers, many closeted male performers shun contact with other gay men, further cutting themselves off from any sense of reality.

In this surreal world, the word gay takes on terrible connotations. Even, performers who have talked about their attraction to other men refuse to use the word itself. "The fact that a lot of my songs are gender-unspecific and that my image as a pop singer is not your typical Robert Plant with my fist punching the air--that, to me, is enough of a statement for anyone," Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M., said in an Advocate interview in 1991. "It's a much broader statement than picking one of those labels and saying, `This is what I am.' I like the idea that people are sexual without having to attach the prefixes."

Closeted gay male entertainers can always make the argument, of course, that they are under no obligation to come out. Butler defends that point of view, saying people may be wasting time in fretting about the subject. "We jump so much to make it an onus that someone hasn't come out," he says. "Maybe it's not a big thing to those people. Maybe it's not an issue."

But in the meantime Adv. 1. in the meantime - during the intervening time; "meanwhile I will not think about the problem"; "meantime he was attentive to his other interests"; "in the meantime the police were notified"
meantime, meanwhile
, the status quo [Latin, The existing state of things at any given date.] Status quo ante bellum means the state of things before the war. The status quo to be preserved by a preliminary injunction is the last actual, peaceable, uncontested status which preceded the pending controversy.  continues to perpetuate itself. "If we keep repeating the conventional wisdom, it will always be true," says Anderson. "I prefer a new vision."

DeGeneres's coming-out may provide a spur to some of her male colleagues. "It couldn't hurt," says Maltin. "I think it all leads in a healthy direction."

It could take some time, however, before a gay man of DeGeneres's stature--or lang's or Etheridge's--decides to follow their footsteps. "No one wants to cross the line first," says Ehrenstein. Still, he believes, the line is bound to be crossed. "There's someone out there we haven't heard of who will be a star someday and not hide his sexuality," he says. "That will be the end of it, and then everyone will wonder why it was so complicated."
COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:gay male icons
Author:Gallagher, John
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 13, 1997
Previous Article:Boys on the side.
Next Article:Heaven's scapegoat.

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