The issue of outing famous gay people is something we’ve discussed several times on this blog, so let’s give it another go. It’s not just because Out Magazine recently released their annual list of the most influential gay people, although there’s plenty of fodder for discussion there too. I don’t want to admit it, but since Out has been doing this for years now, I don’t find it as troubling as I once did that news and gossip monger Matt Drudge and CNN reporter Anderson Cooper are included, even though neither of them discuss their sexuality publicly. In most cases, my position remains that people should not be forced out of the closet, both because they are entitled to privacy, and because rumors of homosexuality are almost impossible to quell (I guess you could go out very publicly with lots of women, but that still isn’t guaranteed to let you off the hook. After all, isn’t there something a little bit suspicious about a guy whose assumed to be gay, and then, boom!, starts dating women here, there and everywhere? He must be hiding something. You get the picture.)
No, what prompted me to revisit the issue is Ramin Setoodeh’s widely discussed piece in Newsweek recently, in which he wrote off openly gay actors Sean Hayes (formerly of Will & Grace, now playing a straight character in Promises, Promises) and Jonathan Groff (who recently guest-starred as Rachel’s love interest on Glee) as simply not believable as straight characters. What was most confusing about thise very confusing piece of pop culture commentary, however, was how he shielded himself from any criticism, by purporting to look at the issue through the eyes of the straight guy in the audience. Would he accept Hayes or Groff as representing him as a heterosexual, Setoodeh implicitly asked, and answered with a resounding ‘no’. And as if to add insult to injury, he labels it the pink elephant in the room.
Setoodeh has later said his critics misread him, and that his main point was to draw attention to the problem that openly gay actors are never given romantic straight roles. But why, then, does he go out of his way to validate the same broader cultural sentiment he seems to be criticizing; that gay actors have something about them, outside of their sexuality, that makes it hard for them to pass for straight? I think Brett Berk, self-described Fun and Faggy Editor for Vanity Fair online and author of the entertaining Gay Guide to Glee, is right to criticize Setoodeh for his narrow view of what constitutes homosexuality. There no more is a commonly agreed definition on what counts as acceptably heterosexual behavior than there is a similar set for homosexuals. This makes Setoodeh’s point controversial regardless of whether his assessment of Hayes’ and Groff’s performances is correct or not. Berk isn’t trying to keep a critic from doing his job (which, among other things, is to assess whether a particular performance works or not), he’s simply disagreeing with Setoodeh over what constitutes a credible portrayal of a straight character.
At best, Setoodeh’s article is mainly incoherent, as when he decries the hostile environment for gay actors who want to play straight roles (they can’t get any) at the very same time that he seems to conform to the belief that gay actors simply can’t do it, because we know they’re gay. He mentions both Rupert Everett, the public face of gay actors who have seen their straight leading man stock plummet since his coming out, and Neil Patrick Harris, whose acting success if possibly was made even greater by adding the public campness to his straight character on How I Met Your Mother. The problem isn’t that Setoodeh’s points out a very real challenge – that gay actors aren’t allowed the same opportunities to be sexually flexible on screen as their straight counterparts – it’s that he, whether he wants to or not, confirms that position.
Which brings me back to the question of outing famous people. I’m generally sympathetic to the notion that famous gays have a special responsibility to be out, because they hold the power to make homosexuality more broadly acceptable, and also serve as role models for people who are questioning their sexuality. That is why I’m still torn on the question of outing. Is it okay in cases were the positive side-effects for other people outweigh the discomfort possibly felt by the one being outed? I thought I didn’t know.
But after Ramin Setoodeh, outing actors (in particular) has become almost indefensible to me. Actually, Setoodeh made realize, we’ll be doing them a favor by keeping them in the closet at any cost, not because they will then have the chance to decide for themselves if they want the public to know their sexual orientation or not, but more important, because they’d be spared the humiliation when they realize that people like him was right along; that the audience will see right true them, to the core that there will always be something a little too queeny about a professed queer as a leading man.
Now that the question of outing is settled, how do we solve the problem for actors who are out already? Let me steal a page from an unlikely source to the straight world; the gay porn industry. Seeing that some gays fantasize about seducing their straight friends, the ‘gay-for-pay’ subgenre consists of supposedly straight performers engaging in gay sex, the trick being that their reluctance will be overcome. Confident that there is an audience for this, let me therefore propose a non-sexual equivalent for gay actors who want to go straight for pay. If Setoodeh is right that gay people have a very specific way about them when they play it straight, and if Brett Berk is right that his perspective is too narrow, then I’m sure there has to be an audience for people who actually think this particular straight vibe is something worth paying for. It would be a wonderful example of gay-straight alliances, within each individual actor.
Okay, I’m joking, if only slightly. But the point remains: Ramin Setoodeh is broadening the battlefield instead of leveling the playing field.