Outward Bound

Celebs struggle to keep sexuality secret(ish), but media make mischief

At a crowded movie premiere in Midtown recently, The Observer witnessed a movie and TV star—a dashing young man who’s been involved with several starlets despite whispers about his close relationships with other men—sitting for the entire party in close conversation with a well-groomed gent, even as his co-stars circulated. As we passed, the plus-one stared us down, as if to say, “Step off,” or perhaps, “Don’t you dare write about this.”

Nor did we, since the question of whether it is news that a virile young actor was enjoying the company of one man—if not the company of men—is very much still open.

For decades, the practice of aggressively outing well-knowns was largely forsworn. Jim McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey, didn’t get the gay rumors swirling around him put into print until he declared himself a “gay American.” Jodie Foster’s long relationship with a female movie producer only went public when Foster acknowledged it in a 2007 awards acceptance speech. By that time, the pair had already raised two children together. TV personality Anderson Cooper was rumored to be gay for years, fueled in part by frequent photos of his trawling lower Manhattan with gay-bar owner Benjamin Maisani, but didn’t confirm it until July 2 in an e-mail to The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan.

But with the increasing acceptability and mainstreaming of gay culture, the texture of how and why people come out or stay in the closet has become a more complicated issue, as has the media coverage surrounding it.

With the number of prying media outlets—TMZ, Perez Hilton, Gawker, TV newsmagazines like Extra, a vivified set of glossy tabloids—growing seemingly by the week, celebrities have come up with a new strategy to decline discussing their personal lives until they’re good and ready. Living in the so-called “glass closet,” they can forestall the legitimate press inquiring about their home life while also ensuring that their orientation is hardly breaking news. It’s being basically out, without having to answer any questions.

For instance, Queen Latifah’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment on this article, even after her performance at a gay-pride event in Long Beach, Calif., raised eyebrows (“Queen Latifah didn’t make any big announcements at the Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride Festival this weekend, but it seems she invited the world to read between the lines,” began one article on BET’s website). She was able to monetize the gay market with a wink and a nod, but actually coming out—if she is indeed gay—was out of the question. “I’ve never dealt with the question of my personal life in public,” Latifah told Entertainment Weekly last month. “It’s just not gonna happen.”

The “nobody’s business but my own” argument may be familiar. It’s a cannier, more media-trained dodge of the question than Clay Aiken’s elision, in Rolling Stone in 2003. “One thing I’ve found of people in the public eye,” he told that magazine, “either you’re a womanizer or you’ve got to be gay. Since I’m neither one of those, people are completely concerned about me.” Or when Latin singer Ricky Martin told Barbara Walters in 2000, without gendered pronouns, in response to questions about his sexuality, “I live la vida loca!”

Both of those singers are, by now, completely out of the closet, although they were allowed to emerge, by the large media outlets, on their own terms—testament to the fact that outing is still the third rail of old-school print media. For instance, New York’s story about the city’s “trophy boys,” which listed attendees at an all-gay party on Fire Island, prompted a number of angry letters and to this day is not on the magazine’s capacious website. ’NSync singer Lance Bass’ coming-out in People in 2006 was treated as breaking news, though gossip blogs cited photos of him in Provincetown, Mass., with a gay reality-TV star as meeting the burden of proof quite some time before.

The politics and ethics of outing, and indeed what constitutes outing, are, as ever, a subject of significant debate in the journalistic community.

Michelangelo Signorile, whose outing of celebrities became a flashpoint in 1990, when he reported for the now-defunct OutWeek about the sex life of the late Malcolm Forbes, has seen the debate shift. “The Daily News got the exclusive from us, and they wanted to put it on the front page. They killed it and instead went with Marla Maples—an acceptably heterosexual scandal,” said Signorile, who is now a news commentator on the Huffington Post and SiriusXM Radio.

When is outing in the media acceptable? “There were two criteria journalistically that had to be met,” Signorile said. “Is the sexual orientation relevant? And is it a public figure? If you’re a public figure where you open up your life for dissection by the media, and it’s relevant to the story, journalistically, that’s something that is perfectly acceptable. At the same time, I have also talked about how culturally, as a journalist working for a journalistic outfit, it’s not a tabloid, I see it as you report on it when it’s relevant to a larger story.”

In other words, “Anderson Cooper is gay” is not a story; “John Travolta sued for same-sex sexual misconduct” is.

But this sort of thinking leaves wide-open any number of loopholes. A.J. Daulerio, the current editor of Gawker, told The Observer, “Everything’s on a case-by-case basis. If you saw a story about a public figure and it’s someone newsworthy and someone interesting, there are so many different variables that I can’t say across the board.” We were discussing Gawker’s recent article about ABC anchor Robin Roberts’ purported lesbianism, a story with valences both in her recent gay-rights exclusive interview with President Obama and good old-fashioned prurience.

“I don’t take exception to Gawker,” said Howard Bragman, the publicist who is known for ushering closeted stars out of the closet (notably, 1980s TV star Meredith Baxter, who made a big announcement on Today after blogs noted her presence on a lesbian cruise). Referring to the practice of calling out stars who seem to be out to everyone but the public, he said, “They’re the ones who say the emperor has no clothes.”

Blogs such as Gawker and Perez Hilton (the latter having sworn off outing celebrities in 2010) have lately played the role that OutWeek occupied in its brief existence—after all, Signorile’s story was as much about testing the limits of what could be reported and written about an individual as it was the specifics of Forbes’ sex life. In comparison to the OutWeek 1990s, though, today “there’s nothing disparaging about saying someone’s gay,” Bragman said. Indeed, an Albany, N.Y., appellate court recently ruled that claiming someone is gay, even falsely, is not libelous.

Just as for some media outlets, the sexuality of an individual who chooses not to comment can never be a news story, for others it will always be a news story. Kevin Naff, editor of the gay newspaper the Washington Blade, refuses to call writing about closeted individuals “outing”: “I call it truth telling.”

“If a celebrity is gay, it’s a fact,” he explained. “We should report it. What you do behind closed doors is private. The fact of being gay is not a private fact. Being straight is not a private fact.”

Brian Moylan, now a Hollywood.com writer once responsible for Gawker’s coverage of Cooper, views the longstanding media prohibition on outing to be a rights issue. “You don’t write a profile about Chris Evans being in The Avengers without asking who he’s dating. You ask Daniel Craig about his recent marriage—and he gets pissed off, but you report the answer. Not asking people about who they’re dating is discrimination. Plain and simple … Reporters are under the obligation to ask that question and report the answer.”

The question arises: Is there no sphere of privacy for the celebrity anymore? After all, straight celebrity couples from Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem to Beyoncé and Jay-Z don’t acknowledge their love in public, although they’re also not asked if they’re heterosexual. Why should Queen Latifah have to dish about her love life—or even acknowledge her sexuality?

In response to such pressures, recent celebrity comings-out have been well-managed, low-key affairs—not nearly splashy enough to damage a career in the manner of Ellen DeGeneres’ years in the wilderness: Jim Parsons, star of the hyperpopular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, got a mention of his sexuality squeezed in at the very end of a long New York Times profile recently. It clearly wasn’t the story—that would be his current starring role in Harvey on Broadway—but it got him enough cred to present at the Tonys. Star Trek’s Spock, Zachary Quinto, mentioned his sexuality in a New York interview about a new indie film he was promoting. Matt Bomer, star of the hit male-stripper movie Magic Mike, thanked his partner at an awards ceremony in February; he’s by now able to reference his and his partner’s children in interviews and still remain the object of the female gaze. All three stars had never hidden their sexuality—they’d lived in a glass closet whereby they never needed to say anything until they were comfortable doing so. But then why waste years of your career dodging questions when the truth will be unveiled nevertheless?

It is perhaps a question John Travolta has entertained, in the wake of his recent public-relations disaster. Travolta, who has long dodged rumors, recently uploaded a video slideshow of family photos to the site Vimeo just as the tabloid story of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by a male masseuse reached critical mass.

As his longtime acquaintance Carrie Fisher said in The Advocate, “We know, and we don’t care. Look, I’m sorry that he’s uncomfortable with it, and that’s all I can say.”

As with all matters of sexuality, it’s not that simple, though.

“It does bother me when I see some of these closeted actors deny that they’re gay or lesbian and I see them out at the bars and clubs,” said Dustin Lance Black, the openly gay screenwriter of Milk and J. Edgar. “And they’re taking advantage of the bravery of men and women so we can have bars. When I see these people who vocally deny their sexuality, who they are, and then take full advantage of the hard work of others …” But he acknowledged that outing is not always a net good. “For those who are leading a private life because that’s their preference … well, we have a right to privacy.”

But he added, “When I have these conversations with actors who are closeted, they’re yearning to be a part of this movement that’s experiencing such progress.”

Bass, whose coming out in 2006 was occasioned by a number of tabloids threatening to run a story on his relationship with openly gay reality-TV star Reichen Lehmkuhl, told The Observer that it never occurred to him to come out in public before his hand was forced. “I had a boyfriend. My friends knew, my family knew, I didn’t think it was a big deal.

“I thought I would just casually reveal it—get married or something.”

That performers such as Quinto and Bomer have been able to “casually reveal it” in recent years indicates just how far public acceptance of homosexuality has come, even since 2006. However, major stars such as Travolta and Latifah have much more to lose than Bomer, an actor on a cable TV series, or Quinto, a still-emerging talent. The ridicule they and others face—“It comes to a point of silliness,” Bragman said of various glass-closeted celebrities—is nothing compared to the definite loss of a fan base partially kept in the dark. (For every Neil Patrick Harris, who’s only gained credibility since coming out, there’s a Clay Aiken, whose female fan base was shocked and disappointed.)

Coming out is a potentially traumatic experience for anyone. Bass, for instance, recalled the two-day period between agreeing to People’s interview request and seeing the “I’M GAY” cover on newsstands: “It was 48 hours to tell the world your deepest, darkest secret.”

Seemingly out of some remaining respect for the difficulty of making such an announcement, outing is still a delicate subject among the media community.

Cyd Zeigler Jr., co-founder of the gay sports-news site Outsports, said that he is sitting on knowledge of several famous athletes who are gay, but he did not expect them to come out anytime soon. “There’s a difference between breaking the news and getting the story. There are people I could write about but I don’t—because I want to know what their life is like, how they live. I want the story behind the news. People who just look at the news miss the story. There’s a lot of bad reporters out there who give us all a bad name.”

Even Outsports’ policy is subject to subtle shading, though: Zeigler noted that the site has written frequently about rumors that Troy Aikman is gay. “Outing is knowing that they are gay and talking about the fact that they are gay against their wishes and explaining how you know they’re gay.”

There’s also the simple matter of defusing the knowing laughter of a public that maybe just doesn’t care that much anymore. “If you’re in the closet,” Bass said, “you get made fun of more than if you just come out!”

If he’s in fact gay, that’s a lesson Chace Crawford—the dashing, engrossed young man at the premiere—may do well to heed.