The amazing invisible men of show business.
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 and television actor Amanda Bearse. With Ellen DeGeneres 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 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 characters have been unwilling to discuss their own sexual orientation publicly. And certainly, says Maltin, "men who play nominally or presumably 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 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, a regular on the NBC sitcom Frasier, and Mitchell 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 (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 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, 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 and dangerous.
By contrast, says Betty Berzon, a lesbian therapist and author in Los Angeles, "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 to believe that masculinity is so closely associated with sexuality that to do something that is about your sexuality 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, 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 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, the status quo 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."