That understanding is beginning to erode. Last month, a New York appeals court overturned decades of precedent by ruling that calling someone gay, even inaccurately, is not in itself defamatory. And legalities aside, the inherently insistent and impolite nature of the Internet has given so many people the ability to stare into that glass closet that the notion of ”not out, but not in” has become very difficult to sustain. It’s impossible to imagine that 15 years ago the chief television critic of The New York Times would have dared to belittle Anderson Cooper during the first week of his syndicated talk show, complaining that ”the one thing he hasn’t done yet — and the lacuna grows more obvious and awkward with each show — is talk about his love life. It’s hard to see how he can continue to leave that out selectively.”
That particular no-man’s-land (well, perhaps that’s not the best choice of words) has created any number of convoluted discussions. Nearly five years after Jodie Foster, at an awards breakfast, thanked ”my beautiful Cydney, who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss” — with no subsequent allusion to a same-sex relationship — writers, editors, and gay-rights advocates are still arguing among themselves about whether that counted as coming out. Welsh actor Luke Evans (Immortals, Clash of the Titans), who had been out since 2002, was recently the target of ridicule when a publicist tried to dismiss his earlier, spectacularly unequivocal record of public comments as stemming from being ”inexperienced,” creating a new category known as ”out until being cast in The Hobbit.” And recently, when it was perceived that Queen Latifah had come out by reportedly referring to ”my people” while performing at a gay-pride event in Long Beach, Calif., she found herself explaining to EW’s Melissa Maerz that no, actually, she hadn’t come out. Which leads to a question that begins, ”If you have to explain that you’re not coming out…” and is probably best left uncompleted.
The entertainment industry has long been on the far-forward edge of gay acceptance, so it’s worth noting that in other fields, from sports to politics, the closet — and not the glass kind — is still very much in operation. And for many actors, it’s going to take more than Jim Parsons and Neil Patrick Harris starring on long-running hit series or Zachary Quinto suiting up as Spock in the next Star Trek to eradicate the notion that coming out is a bad career move. Can it hurt? Theoretically, sure — albeit in very limited ways. If your greatest ambition is to be the star of a series of Nicholas Sparks-style sincerity-in-the-rain romantic melodramas, being an out gay man is still probably going to be a handicap. Could an openly gay actor, for example, have gotten cast in Channing Tatum’s role in The Vow? It’s doubtful. On the other hand, could an openly gay actor have gotten Channing Tatum’s role in 21 Jump Street? Absolutely. And if the biggest price you pay for being open about who you are is that you don’t get to be the next Channing Tatum, consider the fact that even Channing Tatum seems to realize that ”doe-eyed romantic lead” is too narrow a career niche to be a life goal.
It’s probably not a coincidence that many of the most recent revelations have come from television actors — the most relatable show-business celebrities, the ones we have in our homes and with whom we feel on almost intimate terms. And many of their announcements have come wrapped in Modern Family-esque stories of domesticity — a loving long-term partner! Engagements! Families! Strollers! When singer Clay Aiken and The Biggest Loser‘s Jillian Michaels came out in People, it was both as gay people and as proud new parents — as if to say to straight readers, ”We’re just like you.”
In many ways, these accounts of falling in love, making a commitment, and having kids are among life’s least controversial milestones. But for a country in the middle of a national discussion about antigay bullying, not to mention an election year and several likely Supreme Court cases in which the ordinary lives of many gay people still cause anger and mistrust in a large (though shrinking) portion of the public, these gentle revelations are anything but mundane. If each announcement seems slightly less important than the one before, that’s as intentional as the ”Oh, by the way…” style in which they’re delivered. But the stories matter more than even those who tell them may realize.
Pop culture is unmatched in its ability to lead a shift in the national mood. If you doubt it, consider that when Vice President Joe Biden revealed his support for same-sex marriage this spring, he noted that ”Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public” than anything else. So although the drip-drip-drip steadiness of coming-out news can seem inconsequential, cumulatively the stories serve as the very quiet herald of a major tectonic shift. What was impossible 60 years ago and dangerous 40 years ago and difficult 20 years ago is now becoming no big deal. There are more and more actors like Chris Colfer, whose transformation from an unknown 19-year-old to a TV star in 2009 was accomplished without any ”coming out” moment at all. He was simply out, and therefore didn’t have to manage or strategize any revelation once he became famous. As Colfer’s generation — the kids for whom public self-presentation via social media is almost a first language — comes of age and takes the spotlight, coming-out stories will give way, more often, to being-out stories. Or, more likely, nonstories. Five years from now, maybe we won’t even feel compelled to draw your attention to them. But in 2012, it’s still worth pausing for a moment to celebrate the people who are paving that road and, strange as it sounds, the approach of a day when news like this is so much a part of the fabric of everyday life that it won’t merit the cover of this magazine.
(Additional reporting by Melissa Maerz, Nuzhat Naoreen, and Adam B. Vary)