Showbusiness's last secret: actors who daren't leave the closet

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Equity calls for charter to protect performers as one in four admits covering up homosexuality

A charter to protect the rights of gay actors and actresses is to be created after it emerged that many still worry about the effect of coming out on their careers and professional relationships. The entertainment trade union Equity said it hoped to agree a charter that will enshrine the rights of its gay members at a meeting of global unions in Toronto later this year.

The idea was proposed after troubling results emerged from a survey the union commissioned this week. When asked whether it was "safe to be out about your sexuality in the entertainment industry" a quarter said they hid their sexuality in case they became the target of discrimination, were victimised by the media and lost out on roles.

However, Equity's president Malcolm Sinclair said there were some encouraging signs. About 75 per cent of the gay performers surveyed were open about their sexuality. "The results show the industry is not as bad as it was. Back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s it was terrible. You had to stay in the closet. It has become much better," he said.

A new generation of performers has talked openly about being gay, including Russell Tovey, who was in The History Boys, and the Weekend star Chris New, who pointed to the positive influence of actors such as Ian McKellen and Simon Callow on the industry.

The Hollyoaks actor Kieron Richardson, who came out in 2010, said he was "really glad" he did.

He told Pink News: "It's not a big deal and there are so many people doing it now, young people like myself."

However, the Equity survey found that, while most tell their fellow performers about their sexuality, almost 40 per cent keep it from their agents. "That was a real shock," Mr Sinclair said.

One in 10 said they had been discouraged from coming out by their agents. New said: "The first agent I ever had told me not to come out; she didn't want people to know. I didn't ask why." Other gay actors said they were told not to "broadcast" their sexuality.

Mr Sinclair continued: "I don't think it's about shame, or even so much the homophobia you would encounter – actors don't want to limit the parts they are offered. They don't want to be crossed off certain lists."

Mr Sinclair holds regular meetings with international entertainment unions. "When talking about the charter, the European countries mostly shrug and say it isn't an issue. The American union said it remains a huge problem. Homosexuality remains a massive issue for many people in the US. There is a pressure for British actors who look to make it over there to go back into the closet."

Almost one in five told Equity that coming out to their colleagues had negatively affected their career. The majority feared that the roles offered to them would be restricted, or that they would be stereotyped. Rupert Everett said in 2009 that he had lost out on lead parts after coming out, and urged other gay actors to keep their sexuality under wraps. He said: "The fact of the matter is – and I don't care who disagrees – it doesn't work if you're gay."

Many feared they would not land leading roles portraying straight characters. "You often see heterosexual actors playing gay characters, but it's pretty rare the other way round," Mr Sinclair said.

The union's equalities officer Max Beckmann said it was "particularly concerning that 35 per cent of respondents have experienced homophobia in their professional lives. This goes some way to explaining why many respondents say they weigh up whether or not to come out on a job-by-job basis."

Zachary Quinto, who played Spock in the recent Star Trek remake, came out last year. He said: "As a gay man, it made me feel like there's still so much work to be done, and there are still so many things that need to be looked at and addressed."

Sophie Ward, who appeared in the recent film adaptation of Jane Eyre, married Rena Brannan, an American writer, in 2000, before English law recognised civil partnerships. She said coming out in 1994 had been a "raw time", but added: "I don't think coming out in our industry is an issue any more."

She said that, while there was homophobia "as there is in any industry", those who really worry most "would be those up for leading male or female parts, where the audience is wanting to identify with and follow the story of those people".

Case Study: 'If someone tries to joke about it I will call them out'

Chris New, 30, won critical acclaim for his role alongside fellow British actor Tom Cullen in 'Weekend', released last year. The film followed a 48-hour romance between male characters

I have never hidden my sexuality. My first role after drama school was in a play called Bent, which was about a gay man, and I knew the issue would come up. Before the first interview I talked to Alan Cumming, who said that if I wanted to be happy and not live in fear, I should come out.

I don't know if I'm missing out on straight roles. I get sent a lot of stereotyped gay roles, and I say no to them often, mainly because they're not very well written.

I have experienced very little homophobia in the industry personally. That's partly because if someone tries to make a joke about it I will call them out. Others who are more shy and retiring may find it more of a problem.

The industry has definitely changed; there are a new generation of actors who don't have the fear in them about being gay. There is a completely different atmosphere. You have to live in reality: people will turn on you because you're gay. But I just carry on. This sort of prejudice is ridiculous.

***

Rock Hudson

Although it was an open secret in Hollywood, Hudson managed to keep his sexuality private for his entire career.

Ellen DeGeneres

She came out on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997, and her sitcom Ellen plummeted. She has since found success as a chat show host.

Rupert Everett

His career dipped after coming out in 1990, but picked up in 1997 playing Julia Roberts' gay friend in My Best Friend's Wedding.

Kenneth Williams

He never admitted publicly to being gay. In 2008, letters revealed that he was comfortable with his sexuality.

John Gielgud

Gielgud was arrested in 1953 in a public toilet. As a result he avoided Hollywood for a decade, and didn't come out until 1988.

Ian McKellen

Came out in 1988, almost three decades into his career. He has gone on to play some of the most memorable roles in Hollywood.

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