Gay rights and wrongs: Hollywood's biggest taboo

When two of America's brightest young actors decided to come out of the closet, there were hopes the industry was learning to practise what it preached. But homosexuality is still the love that dare not speak its name, reports Andrew Gumbel
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Sometimes, Hollywood's secrets spill out in the most surprising ways. Back in October, two of the stars on Grey's Anatomy, the hottest hospital drama show on American television, had a raging fight on the set. Isaiah Washington was ready to go with a scene, but some of the other actors were not. He and Patrick Dempsey - who both play surgical residents in a fictional Seattle hospital - started exchanging words and, at one point, Washington grabbed Dempsey by the throat. According to news reports at the time, Washington said: "I'm not your little faggot like that guy." Or something along those lines.

The remark was probably meant as no more than a rebuke of Dempsey and his apparent expectation that Washington would work to his schedule. But the gossip-mongers on the internet quickly started asking who exactly the "faggot" might be. Was one of the cast-members on the show gay? So far, so trivial. But then something thoroughly unexpected happened. T R Knight, a 33-year-old actor on the show who plays an emphatically heterosexual doctor called George O'Malley, issued a statement to People magazine. "I guess there have been a few questions about my sexuality, and I'd like to quiet any unnecessary rumours that may be out there," he said. "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."

In the showbusiness world, this was little short of a bombshell. Hollywood may fancy itself as a politically progressive sort of place, where gay people are not only accepted but are employed in large numbers. But the unwritten rule - unchanged in many decades - is that no actor ever admits he is homosexual. Especially not a young, good-looking actor whose character, like Dr O'Malley, conducts on-screen relationships with one attractive woman after another.

Knight's coming out was not the only surprise of the season. A few weeks later, some of the blunter showbiz bloggers on the internet started murmuring about another prominent television actor, Neil Patrick Harris, who is currently starring in a sitcom called How I Met Your Mother, playing an inveterate womaniser. Harris made his name as a teenage performer in the Steven Bochco - David E Kelley comedy Doogie Howser about a child prodigy. He then played a drugged out version of himself in the cult 2004 film Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.

In late October, a website called posted a nasty little item that started: "Nepotism is alive and well in Hollywood." It went on to suggest that Harris had secured a guest role on How I Met Your Mother for a fellow actor it referred to as his boyfriend. Harris's publicist issued a statement stating that Harris "is not of that persuasion", only to be deluged in more negative publicity on the web from bloggers accusing both Harris and his publicist of hypocrisy and bad faith.

Once again, People magazine got the scoop, another personal statement from an actor acknowledging his homosexuality. "The public eye has always been kind to me, and until recently, I have been able to live a pretty normal life," Harris said. "Now, it seems there is speculation and interest in my private life .

"So, rather than ignore those who choose to publish their opinions without actually talking to me, I am happy to dispel any rumours or misconceptions and am quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest and fortunate to be working with wonderful people in the business I love."

Actors who have spent any time working in the Hollywood system are little short of stunned. It's not that there is anything faintly unusual or shocking about the existence of gay actors. Going public, though, is something that simply is not done. "It's a death sentence for your career," said Eve Gordon, a (heterosexual) film and television actress. "All my friends who are gay keep it secret. They don't even know where to draw the line socially... It's like being a Communist in the McCarthy era. It's a gigantic terror. So coming out is an incredibly brave thing to do."

That hard truth is itself a taboo topic of conversation in 2006. This, after all, was touted as the year of the gay movie, thanks to the success and multiple awards showered on Brokeback Mountain, Capote and other titles featuring openly gay characters. Hollywood likes to think of itself as a bastion of sexual tolerance. When gay men started going down with Aids in disproportionate numbers in the 1980s, Hollywood rushed to raise money and awareness of the disease and destigmatise its causes.

The Aids crisis, in turn, made it easier to break one taboo - the depiction of gay characters on screen. Tom Hanks' Oscar-winning turn as a lawyer dying of Aids in Philadelphia (1992) was undoubtedly the big turning point in that battle. Before that, playing gay was regarded as a possible threat to an actor's future career. After that, it became positively desirable.

According to Donna Deitch, who wrote and directed the groundbreaking lesbian romance Desert Hearts in the mid-1980s, playing a gay character is now seen on a par with playing an autistic character, or a schizophrenic, or someone with horrible physical deformities. "That's where the acclaim is," she said. "Actors want to play disadvantaged people, whatever the disadvantage is...

"In 1986, when I made Desert Hearts, you couldn't get any actors of any consequence or familiarity to even consider the role of a gay character. It wasn't going to happen. Now, if you are offering a gay part, and it's a good part, people are going to jump at it. That's what's changed."

The appeal extends to female gay parts as well as male ones: Hillary Swank won an Oscar for her role as a transgendered teenager in Boys Don't Cry, and Charlize Theron came close to winning another one when she played the real-life lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). The one difference, Deitch pointed out sardonically, is that lesbian characters almost invariably end up either in a bisexual love triangle or dead. "Only in Desert Hearts," she said, "do they live happily ever after."

But playing gay and admitting to being gay are two completely different things. When it comes to the latter, Hollywood still adheres to the mentality that American audiences look to their on-screen idols as outlets for their own romantic fantasies and thus need to think of them as strictly heterosexual. The mentality is not necessarily wrong - homophobia is certainly widespread in the American heartland, as evidenced by the slew of recent state ballot initiatives condemning gay marriage. But it does suggest a certain failure of the imagination. Actors, after all, are professionals who make audiences believe they are something they are not. If a straight actor like Hanks can play a gay character convincingly, why shouldn't a gay actor play straight? The fear goes deeper still: the actors seeking out gay parts, like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, or Greg Kinnear in the Jack Nicholson comedy As Good As It Gets, are all unambiguously heterosexual in real life. They are, as one veteran Hollywood actor put it, "beyond suspicion". You don't have to believe the scurrilously persistent - and vehemently denied -rumours concerning Tom Cruise's sexuality to understand that Hollywood's most visible leading man is never ever going to play a gay character on screen.

There are exceptions to the rule. A openly gay character actor such as Sir Ian McKellen can work unhindered partly because of the prestige that comes of being a British stage veteran and partly because he is not expected to play heterosexual romantic leads. An actress like Ellen DeGeneres - who famously came out on her own sitcom in the late 1990s - doesn't suffer unduly because she is a comedian first and an actor only second, and because, once again, she doesn't play parts that call for her to knock the sexual socks off her male audience members.

An openly gay actor called Jack Plotnick plays a womaniser on the Lifetime Network's series Lovespring. Another, called Sam Harris, plays a notably effeminate but heterosexual character on CBS's The Class. But these are not big shows, and not the sorts of actors to wind up being discussed in Entertainment Weekly and the gossip rags.

For the most part, fear continues to rule. One actor, who did not want to be named, told a story of asking after a colleague's boyfriend while the two of them were in make-up. The colleague froze, visibly upset, and later explained that he didn't want his homosexuality mentioned even in front of the hair and make-up people, for fear that word might reach the show runners and producers and jeopardise his prospects of future work.

The actor heaped considerable blame on Hollywood's power elite, many of whom, are themselves openly gay but still continue to perpetuate an atmosphere of intolerance and oppression. "A lot of people are working against gays to shore up their own closet door," the actor said. "They say it's all about the market - if people won't buy it, there's nothing they can do about it." This is, of course, the way it's been since the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. Gay actors like Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson were expected to make public displays of interest in the opposite sex. A recent biography of James Stewart revealed that, at the start of his career, Louis B Mayer was so worried about the implications of Stewart's lack of association with women that he obliged him to visit a private brothel he kept near the MGM lot. Part of the job of powerful gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, who took money from the studios, was to keep the public behaviour of gay actors in check and make sure their secret stayed safe from the American public.

Something is clearly changing now, if only because of the rise of the internet and an unmistakable paparazzi culture that feasts on the personal foibles of celebrities big and small. T R Knight and Neil Patrick Harris may not be household names, exactly, but both had endured months, if not years of hounding by the likes of Perez Hilton, a particularly shameless online gossip-monger who makes it entirely his business to "out" as many Hollywood people as possible without regard for privacy or libel laws.

The impact of their coming out remains to be seen, but will be keenly watched by everyone in the industry. Both Grey's Anatomy and How I Met Your Mother have done well enough to guarantee multi-season runs, which suggests that the two actors will remain in work for the foreseeable future.

After those shows fall away, it is anybody's guess what will happen next. Either their careers will fall apart or, just conceivably, another big Hollywood taboo might at last be broken.