By the Way, We're Gay. The New Art of Coming Out

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That stance is not nearly as casual as it often appears to be. The new art of coming out was field-tested about five years ago, when three TV actors, Frasier‘s David Hyde Pierce, Grey’s Anatomy‘s T.R. Knight, and How I Met Your Mother‘s Neil Patrick Harris, came up with the first shrewd post-Ellen approaches to the subject. Knight, after being backed into an unwelcome spotlight by the news that costar Isaiah Washington had used an antigay slur against him, chose to come out by releasing a statement to People magazine — which many gay celebrities have identified as a sympathetic outlet. His words have since served as a template: ”While I prefer to keep my personal life private, I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me.” Pierce came out merely by permitting a reporter writing about him to mention his partner by name. And Harris was one of the first stars to come out with absolutely no hand-wringing; he addressed the increasing flurry of gossip about his life with a short statement so cheerful and unflustered — it pointedly included the words ”proud,” ”content,” ”happy,” ”fortunate,” ”wonderful,” and, yes, ”normal” — that it almost cheekily threw down a gauntlet: You wanna make something of it?

People did make something of it. They fell in love with him. Harris, then in his second season playing a straight womanizer on How I Met Your Mother, racked up four consecutive Emmy nominations for his role; found a rewarding side gig as the decade’s most versatile awards-show host; and even one-upped any possible jokes about his sexuality by spoofing himself as a sick, twisted closeted straight dude in the last Harold & Kumar movie. What’s more, by coming out from a position of success, Harris unwittingly made himself into the long-awaited test case refuting a decades-old excuse for staying in the closet: the idea, frequently proffered by entertainment execs, armchair quarterbacks, know-it-alls, and homophobes, that if audiences know an actor is gay, they’ll never buy him as anything else. Thanks to Harris — who just completed a seventh HIMYM season built largely around his trip to the altar (with a woman) while tweeting occasionally about his off-camera fiancé actor David Burtka, and their twins — we finally have an answer. It turns out that people actually understand that actors are acting. And they even like it.

Given that, it can be hard to comprehend what’s taken so many actors this long to join him — or why so many more are still on the other side of the closet door. But it’s useful to remember the pressures against coming out that can still emanate from an actor’s own team of agents, managers, and/or publicists (plenty of whom are gay themselves). Twenty years ago, they might have said, ”Don’t come out — you’ll ruin your career!” Today, the phrasing may be gentler — actors are more likely to be told, ”Why rock the boat just when everything’s going so well?” Or they’re stalled with ”Let’s wait for the perfect moment” (i.e., never), or hammered with realpolitik (”Why alienate any segment of your potential audience?”), or handed some self-righteous misdirection as an invisibility cloak (”You should have a right to a private life!”).

Even if an actor waves away all of those warnings, coming out still takes some planning. A lot of thought generally goes into identifying an appropriate interviewer and media venue, although — news flash — it’s not exactly tough sledding to find a gay-friendly entertainment journalist. The smallest details are often the subject of quiet negotiation — for instance, an agreement to place the news deep in a story, or to keep it out of the headline, or not to send out a press release highlighting it.

That may seem like micromanagement, but most celebrities on the precipice of self-revelation are keenly aware that every nuance of tone counts. When country singer Chely Wright came out in 2010, it was preceded by a leak that a major celebrity was about to reveal her lesbianism, leading to speculation about much more famous names. When the subject of the overhype (and subsequent interview blitz) was revealed to be Wright, it risked seeming like nothing more than a way for a not-especially-well-known performer to raise her profile. And when Will & Grace‘s Sean Hayes came out on the cover of the gay magazine The Advocate two years ago — a story for which the magazine was asked not to use the words ”comes out” on its cover — he seemed grudging about his own decision, complaining, ”If you don’t know somebody, then why would you explain to them how you live your life?” Coming-out stories are supposed to be good news: You can’t seek your publicity and hate it, too.

For the most part, though, the latest crop of out celebrities seem remarkably savvy about doing it their way. (For the record, their way included politely declining to be interviewed for a magazine cover story, but indicating that they had no objections to being discussed in it.) They don’t aim to turn themselves into instant spokespeople for LGBT causes.

At the same time, the longer they’re out, the more willing they seem to put themselves on the line at moments when their voices count. In 2008, Harris told Out magazine that he saw himself as ”jester, not advocate.” But four years later, he’s a lot more comfortable being both — hosting an Obama fund-raiser of Broadway stars at which he praised the president’s position on gay marriage, and then, six days later, segueing effortlessly to the Tonys. Wanda Sykes was moved to reveal her marriage to a woman at an anti-Proposition 8 rally in 2008. And when Quinto came out, he made it clear that when he spoke about issues like bullying, he wanted people to know where he was coming from. Collectively, they’re creating a new way of dealing publicly with one’s sexual orientation: speaking in a manner that’s subdued but up-front; leading by example, but not necessarily from atop a pride-parade float; setting boundaries so that some aspects of their lives remain private.

Conversely, those who choose not to come out are finding it harder than ever to protect their privacy. Over the past decade, the press has become more hostile to, and aggressive about, celebrities who are perceived to be closeted to exactly the same degree it’s become more accommodating to those who come out. As the media have realized that being out has gotten easier, they’ve granted themselves the right to knock harder than ever on the closet door. Until a few years ago, coming out was understood to be a high-risk decision. With that in mind, the non-tabloid press adhered to a tacit pact that there was a difference between public figures who lied about their homosexuality (and were thus fair game for ridicule, along with their embarrassing starlet marriages and unconvincing awards-show dates) and those who just didn’t discuss it and therefore had the right to be left alone in a gray zone of discretion. In that ”glass closet,” their homosexuality was common knowledge in the industry, in the press, and among gay people. But they wouldn’t be bothered as long as, in Lily Tomlin’s words, they ”never denied anything, but … never said anything specific.”

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