Hollywood stars still struggle with coming out

Even though, as Simon Cowell pointed out, discovering that Clay Aiken is gay is like “being told Santa Claus isn’t real,” apparently there are a few adults out there who still sit home on Christmas Eve hoping that St. Nick can navigate his way in foul weather.

Message boards devoted to the former “American Idol” runner-up included comments like, “This is really shocking news, as I had no idea he was gay” and “I feel numb I’m so upset; this can’t be real!”

Some among Aiken's ardent fans, the so-called Claymates, had a visceral reaction to the singer's announcement last week that he was gay, expressing dismay and questioning whether they can continue to support him. But most took the news with a blink and a shrug, and that seems to be true for the general public as well.

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.

When asked if he had heard the news about Aiken’s announcement, Bryan Batt replied, “What news?” An openly gay actor who plays the closeted gay character Salvatore Romano on the Emmy-winning “Mad Men,” Batt was indicating that he doesn’t believe in Santa, either.

“In this country,” he said, “too many people worry about other people’s private lives.”

Batt said that being out and gay has not affected his career. “Not that I know of,” he said. “I was never really very closeted as a professional actor. It’s such a non-issue with me, my sexuality.

“When I think about other people, it’s not one of the top things I ask. It’s more important what you do, not who you do.”

Coming out less jarring than in the past
Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said because there is a more understanding climate when it comes to such declarations, the news is much less jarring that it had been in the past.

“Certainly society is more accepting of lesbians and gays, and we’re more visible than we’ve ever been,” he said. “Everybody knows somebody who is lesbian and gay.

“I would have to add that the whole issue of exposing one’s sexual orientation is a personal one. I don’t think outside factors matter as much as an individual’s personal journey.”

When Aiken came out, he unintentionally directed a spotlight on the issue of career. Will fans abandon him in droves? Will he be less of an attraction as a performer because of his sexual orientation? In decades past, great efforts were made to cover up a celebrity’s homosexuality in order to preserve his or her popularity among the heterosexual mainstream.

Now? Career concerns don’t seem nearly as deep as they once were. The days of Rock Hudson marrying his agent’s secretary for appearances’ sake seem to be over.

“I do think it’s a lot more acceptable now,” explained Bonnie Zane, an Emmy-nominated casting director who works mostly in television. “In Hollywood, announcements like that are rarely a surprise. There wasn’t one person here who didn’t know Clay Aiken was gay.

“Do I think it affects their careers? When Neil Patrick Harris (one of the stars of “How I Met Your Mother”) came out, it didn’t affect him at all. No one stopped viewing the show because of it. Maybe a few people in Middle America, but I don’t think it affected the ratings at all.”

Some still not ready to come out
Not all gay actors feel as ready or as comfortable to reveal their sexual identities as Harris or Aiken. Zane mentioned one actor who had been outed by a Web site but who “went back into the closet” when he got a prominent role on a show that required him to play a macho role.

There is another show she is aware of, she said, that features an actor who will not talk about his children or his partner because “he doesn’t want to open that door.”

And, she explained, if a studio or production company wanted to avoid hiring an actor simply because he or she was gay, “No one would come out and say it because everyone here is politically correct. There are other ways to put the kibosh on (hiring).”

In the entertainment business, there are gays and lesbians who are still in the closet. Then there are those who are out in certain Hollywood circles, but not out to the general public.

“We talk with people who are still struggling with how out they want to be,” Giuliano said. “They might be out at private parties, but not at the workplace or with colleagues. It’s a very personal and unique situation with every individual.

“One’s upbringing and family relationships and where they are at in the world come into play. What happens with my career, my income, my relationships with colleagues? A lot of us who were in the closet and had a fear of others knowing came out and then realized that people assumed we were gay anyway and (the fear) was all in our own minds.”

He cautioned that, even though there have been advancements for gays and lesbians and the atmosphere generally is friendlier to those who choose to make their status public, “You can still be fired in 30 states if you’re openly gay. You can’t serve in the military. There is no federal hate-crime legislation. So when deciding to come out, it’s still a very big deal.”

That’s true for some, not so much for others.

“Again, to me, it’s a non-issue,” Batt said. “I’ve never tried to be anything other than what I am. If people have a problem with it, it’s their problem, thank you.”

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