Ben Whishaw: Have audiences finally accepted gay film stars?

Ben Whishaw has become the latest actor to 'come out' with relatively little fanfare
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The Independent Culture

It was once considered career suicide, with the MGM golden boy Mickey Rooney quipping "I never knew anything about anyone being gay in Hollywood when I was working in the studios. They weren't in closets, they were in safes." But a growing number of high profile actors have 'come out' recently with relatively little fuss. The latest is Bond actor Ben Whishaw, who confirmed that he married his partner, composer Mark Bradshaw, last year. Few were surprised, especially as he told Out magazine back in 2011: "As an actor you have total rights to privacy and mystery, whatever your sexuality, whatever you do."

Whishaw's reticence to discuss being gay in interviews seems more about maintaining a private life than the fear that it could damage his career. But it wasn't long ago that Rupert Everett was advising young gay actors to keep their sexuality a secret based on his own experiences in Hollywood. "The fact is, that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business," he said in 2009.

But have things really changed? A survey by the acting union Equity in 2012 found that while 81 per cent of LGBT actors are out and proud in their professional lives, only 57 per cent are open about their sexuality with their agent.

"Any gay person will tell you that it takes a lot of courage to come out, whatever industry you work in," says Matt Hemley, the news editor of The Stage. "That's not exclusive to acting. But it seems gay actors are worried about the roles they're going to get, as their agents are the ones putting them up for parts. If you are a leading man then you have an image to uphold, and you might think that audiences won't accept you if they know that you're gay, even if that hasn't proved to be the case."

Russell Tovey's depiction of the archetypal lad Steve in the BBC sitcom Him & Her is proof that you can be "out" and still get the "straight parts". Likewise, Neil Patrick Harris came out in 2006 but found fame playing the womaniser Barney in How I Met Your Mother. Sherlock's Andrew Scott is similarly low-key about his sexuality: "Mercifully, these days people don't see being gay as a character flaw," he told The Independent in November. "But nor is it a virtue, like kindness. Or a talent, like playing the banjo. It's just a fact."

However, gay actresses don't spring to mind as readily. "I do wonder if it's harder for women to come out and still get the leading lady roles," adds Hemley. "If you think about lesbians represented on UK TV fullstop – they're virtually invisible, so gay actresses probably don't want to jeopardise their chances of getting work. It's a vicious circle."

Ellen Page, the star of Juno and Inception, came out in a speech in February, and has talked about the double standards at work in Hollywood. "You hear things like: 'People shouldn't know about your life because you're creating an illusion on-screen'," she said. "But I don't see other actresses going to great lengths to hide their heterosexuality."

Danny Lee Wynter is an actor and co-founder of the Act For Change project, that campaigns for diversity on screen. "In the UK, I think it's better than it's ever been for gay actors in terms of support," he says. "Unless you're a Hollywood star. For those kinds of actors, conversations will have been had early on with agents and publicists about whether to come out or not.

"You have to remember that their film will be sold in places that are still incredibly intolerant [of homosexuality] and it's all about how much money you make in that opening weekend. For that reason, you can't underestimate how brave it is for a big star like Ben to come forward."

That leading men have to be seen as "available" to female fans is often given as the reason why many gay men in the entertainment industry, notably boy bands, have to hide their private lives – the so-called "glass closet". But even mainstream teen idols are now able to openly identify with a more fluid sexuality. Josh Hutcherson, a star of The Hunger Games, recently told an interviewer: "Maybe I could say right now I'm 100 per cent straight. But who knows? In a fucking year, I could meet a guy and be like, 'Whoa, I'm attracted to this person.' I think defining yourself as 100 per cent anything is kind of near-sighted and close-minded."

So are we a long way off having an openly gay or bisexual leading actor in a Hollywood movie? "I think we will get there," says Lee Wynter. "And when someone that high profile comes out and can still command good box office figures, you can't imagine the ripple effect it will have throughout the world."