Entertainment » Culture

Gays in Hollywood :: A Status Report

by Bob Johnson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Apr 13, 2009

Even though "liberal" California passed legislation to legalize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 2008, change is in the air. Just this past week Iowa & Vermont legalized same-sex marriage and the mood in the country - despite new anti-gay marriage initiatives by conservatives - is moving towards acceptance of a concept that seemed radical a decade ago.

In the entertainment industry, though, depictions of LGBT lives remains largely the territory of independent films. Even the multi-Oscar winning "Milk" was more an indie than a mainstream Hollywood product and it has grossed less in five months than some Hollywood films do on their opening weekend. As for the bump in LGBT films that "Brokeback Mountain" was suppose to bring, well, it hasn't happened, and the number of LGBT characters on network series has lessened over the past few seasons, according to GLAAD. Nor has a mainstream actor taken the initiative and come out.

Which raises the question, is Hollywood more welcoming of LGBT talent?

Edge recently talked to a group of Hollywood insiders to give them a chance to sound off on the climate for the LGBT community in show business.


Looking back

Gay talent and gay characters have always been around in Hollywood - from the fop character in silent movies to artists that include Vincent Minnelli, George Cukor, Montgomery Clift, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Charles Nelson Reilly and (more recently) Neil Patrick Harris. But the norm in Hollywood right up to the 1980s was films in which gay characters often committed suicide by the final reel. It wasn’t until "Making Love," released in 1982, that a mainstream movie dealt with a romantic relationship between men in a more realistic fashion.

And the closet remained an integral part of Hollywood life.

During the late ’80s, Glenn Meehan, Emmy-nominated producer of "Split Ends," moved to Los Angeles to work as a producer on Entertainment Tonight.

"When I look back at the days when I first started out," Meehan said, "I wasn’t quite sure of myself so I was very cautious and I had a female roommate and people assumed that we were together as a couple."

According to publicist Howard Bragman, has been a part of the LGBT movement in Hollywood for 20 years and was a panelist at a Writers Guild Of America West event in March that inspired this article. According to Bragman, major defining moments for the community were Rock Hudson - the sex symbol of the 50s and 60s - coming out of the closet; Dick Sargent, the second Darren on "Bewitched," coming out in the early 90s; and, of course, Ellen deGeneres’ coming out on her sitcom. The success of "Will and Grace," too, was important, as was "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Acting, casting & the closet

Ever since Ellen came out on her sitcom, more actors in the business have been slowly edging their way out of the closet. Some by choice (Portia DiRossi, David Hyde-Pierce), others have been given a bit of a push (Neil Patrick Harris, T.R. Knight).

"David Hyde-Pierce has played it beautifully," said Bragman. "He thanked his lover when he won an Emmy. He’s always been defined as being a great actor."

"A lot of people don’t have to hide anymore. A lot of people still do," said Meehan. "It’s so Goddamn easy when you don’t have to hide it. When you’re hiding something, you have to work overtime."

Still, some actors are reticent to let some casting directors know that they are out in fear of being overlooked for straight roles.

"A lot of times it’s gay casting people who are the worst," said Michael Shepperd, actor and artistic director of the LA-based Celebration Theatre. "I’ve heard many stories of gay casting agents saying ’We can’t use him because he’s gay."

Daniel Frank, blogger and out gay actor who had a featured roll in the short film "Neurotica," hasn’t experienced any problems in the casting department.

"I don’t think that’s there any resistance to me auditioning," he said. "And they don’t know that I’m gay until I show up and start talking. But type casting is something that I need to be concerned about."

But, perhaps, the casting folks aren’t really the ones to blame. The fact is casting agents reject actors - a lot.

"Casting is a red flag business," said Bragman. "They do it based on negative: He’s too old. He’s too short. He’s too fat. He’s too butch. He’s too gay. He’s too straight."

Face it, casting is about "type." Being type cast or cast based on experience isn’t limited to out LGBT actors. Every actor is "typed" or pigeon-holed by casting directors.

"I’m the innocuous black who doesn’t scare white people," explained Shepperd. "I’m a very good doctor, lawyer, cop and investigative reporter... I am perceived as "not the norm." I’m not a gangsta.... ’The Snoop Dog’ show saw me and they asked me to play the role of the black nerd... I didn’t do it... We cast with stereotypes."

Can out LGBT actors, however, break through those stereotypes?

Liz Feldman, four-time Emmy award winner for her work as a writer/producer on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and host of AfterEllen.com’s "This Just Out with Liz Feldman" believes so cites an example.

"Portia diRossi is appealing to men and women. She has appeal across the board.... Acting is pretend. You can pretend. Acting is acting. We’re not playing ourselves."


Outing and coming out

Outing has been around for decades although it gained prominence in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when journalists, most notably Michelangelo Signorile, outed closeting gay people who would speak out against the LGBT community.

One of the most public outings of the past few years involved American Idol contestant and pop star Clay Aiken, who went from categorical denials of being gay to finally officially coming out in September, 2008 and to move on to playing the gay character of Lancelot in the musical "Spamalot" on Broadway.

According to Meehan, Aiken sent the wrong message in his denials.

"It was as if he was saying ’I don’t have cancer.’

"That was awful... (Or) Take the Ricky Martin approach. Barbara Walters asked him about it and he said that he wasn’t going to comment on it.

"When Clay came out and said ’I’m not gay’ - that pissed me off. The same with Ted Haggard. It hurts us when people lie.

"When you look at Clay Aiken and he says it in bold letters he’s saying ’It’s not good to be gay.’"

Patricia Resnick, screenwriter and author of the book to the new Broadway musical "9 to 5," agrees, "I think it hurts the community not to come out. Every time someone like Wanda Sykes comes out... People are more embracing because it is an actual person. When somebody comes out, it puts a face on [being gay.]

"The more people come out, the better it will be." Said Feldman,

For Michael Shepperd, who has a recurring role on the Disney series ""Wizards of Waverly Place," being out is not an issue.

"I don’t ever want to be in a situation where I have to say ’No I’m not gay.’ I am gay, I am out.’ I had to make the decision that I can no longer be a closeted actor. I can no longer be afraid of people’s perceptions of me."

Ultimately, it’s the individual’s decision. Some straight actors who play gay characters don’t like to talk about their personal lives, too.

"When I represented Doug Savant," explained Bragman, "He thought it was offensive to flaunt the fact that he was heterosexual when he discussed his personal life. Savant, amiliar today for his role as Felicity Huffman’s husband on "Desperate Housewives," played one of the most prominent gay characters of the 1990s -- Matt Fielding on the nighttime soap "Melrose Place."

"Many of my actor clients don’t like to talk about their personal lives," explained Bragman. "They like their acting to speak for them, not their sexual orientation. Everybody has to do what’s right for them."


Onscreen vs. Offscreen


Actors are always in the public eye and, at least to some, public perception of their personal lives is important. Does off-screen talent face similar challenges when it comes to sexual orientation?

Feldman feels that she has just as many opportunities as a straight writer. Likewise for Resnick.

"For me, I have to say, I always found Hollywood a pretty welcoming place." Resnick offered. "I never really felt that being lesbian was a major issue. I never came out of the closet because I was never really in the closet. I don’t walk into a meeting and say ’Hi, I’m a lesbian.’"

Maurice Jamal, out director and actor came out while he was working on David Chappelle’s show.

"There was a big debate amongst people in the business about whether I should come out.

"I have good friends in the business who are not out. They sometimes find it difficult and have trepidations about hanging out with me because they think it will out them, particularly the actors."

One of the most interesting things about Jamal’s coming out is that there were women working on the show who were interested in dating him.

"When they found out that I wasn’t in their dating pool, whispers started," he said. "Then they realized that I could be a best friend."

Family issues

And then there’s the family factor: Many actors-and other show biz industry professionals-chose not to come out because their families do not know their sexual orientation. Meehan, who came out in a cable documentary, chose to do so because his grandmother did not get the channel.

In an example of art reflecting life, actor Ray Cunningham saw his character on the series "College Hill" come out of the closet on the first episode, which made the actor the first out television personality on BET. Getting there, though, was a struggle for the actor, who initially hoped not to let his sexual orientation be a factor on his work on the show.

"When I did the show," said Cunningham, "I tried to avoid it. But I was told - if you don’t say it, someone else will."

Cunningham’s sexual orientation wasn’t a secret -- he wasn’t hiding it. Then the producers told him that his orientation was going to be part of his storyline.

"So, in the first episode, they showed me saying, ’Hi. I’m Rich and I’m gay.’"

Offscreen, Cunningham inavertedly came out as well.

"I slipped up in the interviews and said that I was gay," he explained.

Then within five minutes of Cunningham saying he was gay on that episode, his phone was ringing off the hook.

"Well, it’s out now," his mother told him. "This is something you have to take on and deal with it."

He and his father "fell out" for a couple of months, but they have gotten closer.

"He teaches me to embrace it and be professional. My Dad supports me and everything that I do."

For Jamal, the family experience has been nothing less than positive.

"Everyone in my family is great," he said. "From the cousins who are younger than me all the way up to the uncles and great aunts. It also helps to be gay and successful. When you are on the cover of a magazine, it helps. Other people in the family point to me as a positive example."


The Generational Factor

There is a "changing of the guard" in Hollywood-and around the country. The younger generation is much more open to embracing sexual orientation.

"Times have changed," said Meehan. "Anyone under 35 couldn’t give a shit about gay marriage, they just think ’Why not?’"

Resnick has two children: a fifteen-year-old and a thirteen-year-old who go to different schools. Through her childrens’ experiences at school, she has noticed that attitudes towards gays and lesbians have really changed.

"There are gay/straight alliance at both high schools and the predominant membership is straight." She said. "There’s a number of kids that seem to be out. And there are kids who are ’gender indifferent.’"

Resnick realized how much the world had changed when her daughter came to her and told her there was a student at her school who said that he was gay but she and her friends didn’t think that he was.

"Why would he say he is gay?" Resnick asked her daughter.

"Just for the attention," her daughter replied.

Jamal also has noticed a difference in approach by different age groups.

"Different demographics have different concerns," he said. "The younger ones are worried about making a mistakes. The older generation offers advice about how they did it: ’We don’t talk about such things."

So, where’s are all the LGBT characters?

With the success of "Milk," "Brokeback Mountain," "Will & Grace" and Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, you would think that there are more shows and movies with LGBT characters and themes in development. Yet according to a report from GLAAD, there are mixed numbers for the current season: the overall presence of LGBT characters is up, but the number of recurring characters is down. What is the reason?

"’Milk’ and ’Brokeback Mountain’ were both amazing films," said Bragman. "Both showed that gay content can be successful by every measure: financially & critically.

"There’s a shortage of scripted characters in every minority group. It’s because there are less scripted shows and less pilots in development."

Feldman said that she has found getting gay content on the air more challenging. She developed an idea for a show for ABC, a show that was "straight down the middle."

When she presented her idea to the network’s development office, they offered the following feedback: "Hey, why don’t we do something with a lesbian character because we feel like it might be time for that."

She went back to the drawing board and created a new show.

"Once I did that, it was passed on by every major network. It’s still a bit scary to have a lesbian lead character."

One thing that many people tend to overlook is advertisers. Without the support of advertising dollars, shows do not get made.

Jackie Warner (her website), star of Bravo’s "Work Out," said "I don’t get endorsements because I’m openly gay.

"If advertisers wouldn’t pull out advertising dollars so quickly, there would be a lot more gay content and a lot of actors would be coming out. Advertisers don’t normally invest in gay people.

"Advertisers pull out at the drop of a hat at the sign of any controversy-any controversy, she concluded. "That’s why so many people are afraid to come out and do anything."

Role models

No doubt about it, openly LGBT people in Hollywood become role models for people around the country and the world.

After Cunningham came out on "College Hill," he got noticeably more messages on MySpace.

"A little young boy in the 7th or 8th grade would tell me that he knew that he liked boys and wanted to tell his parents and wanted to know what he should do. Should he keep it a secret or tell the truth?

"I said, ’I don’t know you, I don’t know your life. If it’s a situation for which your parents are going to disown you, wait. If your parents ask you that’s a different story.’ [The boy] was willing to make a decision based on what I said."

Feldman, too, said that she has noticed the impact of her online show.

"By doing it online," she said, "you are able to reach the international audience. That has made a huge difference-instantaneously reach across national borders. You can’t do that on t.v. You can’t even do that in print."

Feldman has a large teenage viewership and gets lots of e-mails that state "I’m out because you’re out." She has even received an e-mail from a woman who lives on a small island off the coast of Scotland who confided to Feldman that she was the only gay person she knew of that was living on the island.

What’s next?

Obama ran on a platform of hope. And, perhaps "hope" is the best way to look at how far we’ve come in Hollywood-and where we are heading.

"You gotta take a long-term view," said Bragman. "Particularly younger people. Don’t just look at the moment. Look where we’ve come. Don’t’ back off... Realize that we are getting there. While we’ve got to continue the fight, take a moment to celebrate what we’ve achieved. The revolution is over, we’re now in the evolution."

Frank thinks that the future of gays in Hollywood looks like it’s heading in the right direction although "clearly, we still have to deal with some discrimination, like the passage of Prop 8."

Warner is also betting on hope: "I think that it’s going to be a heckuva lot better in the Obama administration. We’ve been bullied for 8 years. Now is a time that Americans are starting to focus on the things that matter to them: living, paying their basic necessities to live.

"The issue of ’Is there a homosexual living next door to me?’ is not as great as their was four years ago.

"I think people are really going to be open to others’ freedoms: a more unified, supportive society. That’s what we need. We all need to come together for the greater good and stop quibbling about personal preference (religious, sexual or otherwise).

"Yes, things have changed. RuPaul said that his show couldn’t have happened during the Bush administration. During that time, the gay community went back several steps because the fundamentalists had the key to the kingdom."

Carole Pope (CarolePope.com), author, singer and songwriter whose music was featured on "Queer as Folk," said "I think things have changed and people are more accepting. The younger ones are not preaching about hate. People are obsessed with the economy, global warming and have a million other things to be obsessed with. [Sexual orientation] is going to be a non-issue some day. I think in this generation. In 20 years for sure."


BittenByAZebra.Com - aka Bob Johnson - is a New York-based writer, photographer and video artist.


Comments

  • , 2009-04-13 13:41:04

    See, the problem is that Hollywood is a business and not an instrument of social evolution. Sometimes it leads in changing mores, sometimes it lags, but mostly it tries to make movies that people aged 15-35 want to give it money to see. They’re just not that into gays, you see, cuz most of them aren’t. "Milk" did very well for what it was, and given that, it is not a dead end genre, but a very limited one. There’s a niche market for anime, there’s a niche market for teen date movies, there’s a niche market for gay themed fare. But Hollywood is going to risk its money on things that have a change of huge returns on investment, and that seems something that liberals who think Hollywood is there to serve their interests just never seem to get.


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