By Greg Simay
Male movie stars and star athletes are reluctant to come out of the “glass closet” and publicly say that they’re gay. “Glass closet” is an apt term because many people may strongly suspect that a heartthrob action hero or top athlete is gay. And as long as the guy stays in the closet, everyone’s willing to pretend they can’t detect anything but his carefully crafted public image. But for him to come out and publicly announce his gayness without any shame or embarrassment? That’s another thing entirely. Shattering the glass may well guillotine his acting or athletic career. Only the power of romantic love (as effectively dramatized in the play Justin Love, see BNB review) may give him the resolve to endure the bleeding.
As Howard Bragman reminds us in his article, “Miles To Go Before We Sleep,” there’s still a lot of outright intolerance for gays in our society. In some towns, in some regions of the country, revealing that you’re gay puts your life at risk, not just your career. No wonder that there’s still “no out movie star” and still “no out professional athlete in a major sport.”
But let’s assume that we’re a tolerant society. What would still keep someone in the glass closet? I can think of three reasons: being the focus of heterosexual female longings, being a trigger for male insecurities, and being a role model for the kids.
Will your female fans tearfully rip down your poster? Will young women of all ages be less inclined to see their male idol romancing a woman on screen if they know he romances a man off-screen? Up until the 1960’s, I’d say yes. But nowadays, I don’t know. When it comes to plays, the audience does not demand that the actor off stage embody all the qualities of their character on stage. But in the mass culture world of movies, it may be different. Perhaps the answer depends on the actor’s particular chemistry with his fans.
Will your erstwhile male fans make nervous jokes about you? In the recent book Brandwashed, the author carried out a brain imaging study to see “what effect photographic imagery of the near-naked male really has on the heterosexual male consumer.” So eight gay guys and eight straight guys between 18 and 25 viewed “five images of male models stripped down to their tight white skivvies and boxer briefs”. Both groups showed brain activity in a region dubbed “the deception area”, the part of the brain that you use when you’re trying to convince yourself of something that isn’t really the case. The researchers found that “some of the heterosexual men were equally stimulated by the [male model] ads—their brains were just working harder at denying it”. So now suppose an actor or athlete who projected an image of straight masculinity comes out and says he’s gay. How many brains would light up their “deception areas”, and with what consequences to their hero’s career?
But the real biggie is the actor’s “role model” role that reinforces a culture’s notion of what it means to be a man.
Does your dad burn your poster or allow you to keep it? Tolerating something is not the same as approving it. Being polite to a gay co-worker is not the same as inviting him to dinner. Or holding him up as a role model to your child. The glass closet dares us to confront this question honestly: Is gayness bad? Notice that this is a different question from, “Can gayness be helped?” The evidence strongly suggests that it can’t be. But even if gayness could be turned into straightness, why would you do it unless you’ve already decided that gayness is bad? So the question is not whether male homosexual urges can be helped, it’s whether they should be resisted.
Remember, coming out of the glass closet is not like confessing to the public you’ve been struggling with alcoholism, or drugs, or sex addiction. In these cases, you’re agreeing with the public that you have a problem you’re trying to overcome. You’re asking for their forgiveness. Coming out of the glass closet is more like telling your up-to-now admiring public that being gay is of no more moral significance than being left handed. You’re not like the alky promising never to drink another drop. Instead, you’re asking the public to shed their prejudice against people who are gay.
Some of the feelings against gayness have more to do with some of the things that had become attached to the idea of being gay. In the play Angels in America, junkyard dog lawyer Roy Cohn denies being gay even as he suffers from AIDS and his male lover keeps vigil. Why? Because to him, being gay is being weak, not being an alpha male. But what is being “weak”? Is it having empathy? Is it tearing up at the sight of a sunset or sound of a song? Is it having the very qualities any good actor must have? If an actor is an action hero on the screen, is he obliged to be a brawler in some Hollywood bar (as some actors of an earlier era were)?
Ask any combat veteran if the gay soldier who had his back in Afghanistan was anything less than a courageous comrade. If anything can disabuse the public of the difference between being sensitive and being a sissy, military experience with gays may be able to do it. A desegregated military certainly did much to overcome racial prejudice.
Another thing that sometimes attaches to gayness is the rank exhibitionism (mainly in gay parades) and rampant promiscuity, with AIDS a constant risk. I had asked a gay friend what was up with all that. He told me that when society rejects you for who you are, you have less reason to observe its norms. Self-destructive behavior seems to matter less when you feel yourself being destroyed anyway. As the saying goes, “in for a penny, in for a pound.” Some of my Irish ancestors were drunken hotheads not because they had a “drunk” gene or a “hothead” gene, but because of how they had been treated. I think something similar goes on with some gays who feel that society has damned them from the get go.
So let’s say a decorated (but closeted) gay war hero gets into the movies, becomes an action hero on the screen, and wants to settle down with his male lover in a monogamous relationship in real life. Let’s also say you have a son who idolizes him. And why not? In both his public and private life, the actor sets a fine example (setting aside for the moment his gayness) of how a mature adult should behave. But one day, your son’s movie hero comes out of the closet, cameras flashing, arm around his male spouse’s waist. What do you tell your son?
Do you condemn the actor in spite of the many things about him that you hold to be good, as if you had just learned he had been a closet pedophile or serial killer? (“Other than that Mrs. Lincoln…”)
Do you tell your son it’s okay to still admire the actor, in spite of the character flaw of not resisting his gay impulses? (“Nobody’s perfect, I know guys who have much bigger problems than that. Pray for him.”)
Do you tell your son it’s okay to still admire the actor, and his being gay is just an unfortunate condition like having Tourette’s Syndrome? (“See? A person can achieve success in spite of their disabilities.”)
Do you tell your son he’s differently-abled like someone with Aspergers? In the recent book the Intelligence Paradox, the author points out that the “genes for both intelligence and male homosexuality appear to be located on the chromosome Xq28,” apparently one of the go-to sites for “evolutionary novelty”. So, if a McGuyveresque genius hero gins up some gizmo on the fly to get the villain, don’t be surprised if he gets the guy rather than the girl. (“Son, he’s like that kid down the street who can do Rubik’s Cube in 20 seconds flat, but who’s tongue tied in social situations. Your hero as well has, well, his own set of pluses and minuses.”)
Or do you tell your son something like, “So he’s gay. Maybe he’s left-handed too. Do you see how he’s in a committed relationship? So when you become a big shot star in whatever field my son, don’t let success to turn you into a male slut. You wouldn’t want your hero to be ashamed of you, would you?”
Parents use role models to reinforce the values they want to impart to their children. And this circles us back to the question: Is gayness per se a horrible thing that obliges a role model to stay in the closet? Is it merely an unfortunate thing, no big deal to admit to? Or is gayness a morally neutral quality, and the role model can step out of the closet in good conscience? Maybe even be a particular inspiration to gay kids?
So many of our beliefs attach to us like ticks on a stray dog. In the 1950s it was easy to disdain gays because everyone else did. Nothing prompted the average citizen to think about homosexuality with any depth. Then came the 1960s and the Stonewall Rebellion, which signaled to the world that unthinking prejudices would henceforth carry a higher price tag than before. In the years since, toleration has arrived in many quarters, unease in many others. But real, fully integrated acceptance? Not yet. Or there would be no glass closet.
The questions raised here may not coax anyone out of the glass closet. But at least on our end, they can remove the duct tape from the door.