Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Is It Really the End of the Beard & Merkin Era?

Rock Hudson and his lesbian wife, Phyllis, laugh at the stupidity of the public.

On the heels of last week's New York Times article about gay actors finding work in Hollywood comes this piece by MSNBC contributor Michael Ventre, who declares the "days of Rock Hudson-style facades over" while acknowledging that discrimination remains an issue for entertainers seeking an audience of millions. The latter part we're in agreement about; when it comes to the former, I don't know what the heck he's talking about.

Unquestionably, there has been a shift over the last few years in how closeted Hollywood celebrities conduct themselves in the media. Rather than going through the elaborate charade of cooking up fake heterosexual relationships for public consumption (not that those things don't still happen as well), more celebrities seem to be adopting the "my private life is off-limits" approach their British counterparts have long taken, an efficient way of avoiding both coming out and being actively closeted.

However, the American way of doing it sometimes seems to miss the point. You're not preserving your personal integrity when you tell reporters your private life is off-limits and then proceed to spend 20 minutes yakking about your children, all the while failing to mention the fact that you had them with a partner -- the same partner who was probably making sure they did their homework while you were off on a press junket pretending to be a single parent. What that ultimately exposes is an astonishing lack of integrity, made only slightly more palatable by the fact that a phony heterosexual love interest wasn't dragged into the mix.

That more gay celebrities seem resistant to the idea of entering into sham relationships is certainly encouraging, but I question how much of it can be directly attributed to that optimistic, familiar standby that society is evolving. When it comes to the public embracing openly gay entertainers, that evolution can only happen as quickly as famous gay people allow it to. They have to keep coming out if we're ever going to get anywhere, and when you compare the number of gay Hollywood stars to the number of out Hollywood stars, it's clear there is still a great deal of progress to be made. And it's only natural to wonder how many recent comings-out have been completely organic and how many have been the function of an increasingly invasive, 'open 24/7 on the Internet' tabloid media.

Are celebrities rejecting the Rock Hudson facade on their own, or is Perez Hilton rejecting it for them? I think the two are inextricably linked, but I'm also cynical enough to believe that the significant challenge of being a public figure and remaining closeted in the year 2008 has led to more recent outings than any newly unearthed altruistic impulses on the part of gay celebrities. Which leads us to another point of Ventre's that I have to disagree with:
When gays and lesbians in the entertainment industry come out these days, they’d probably be advised to throw lavish coming-out parties to ensure that attention will be paid. In the year 2008, when tolerance levels appear to be at an all-time high — not ideal by any means, and with lots of room for improvement — such an announcement is often quickly consumed by the 24-hour news cycle, and digested by a more enlightened populace.
How many lavish coming-out parties has Hollywood ever held? More often than not, at least in recent memory, a short statement is released, or a matter-of-fact acknowledgment is made in an interview, and the blogosphere takes it from there. Heather Matarazzo, Sarah Paulson, Cynthia Nixon, T.R. Knight, David Hyde Pierce, Neil Patrick Harris -- none of them were looking for a media circus when they came out, and few had the stature to warrant one, though the "Same Sex and the City" headline opportunities presented by the Nixon story were too great for most newspapers to resist.

Clay Aiken bucked the trend last week with his double whammy People cover and "Good Morning America" appearance, but most celebrity outings remain relatively low-key affairs -- and are likely to stay that way when the majority of those electing to come out are faded pop stars or actors who work primarily on stage or in television.

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