Do Gay Leading Men Still Face Bias In Hollywood?

By : Subscribe to Ellen's | May 26, 2012 10:55 PM IST

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When two male massage therapists filed lawsuits earlier this month accusing John Travolta of sexual assault, the scandal renewed long-held speculation about the actor's sexual preference. Though the lawsuits -- which were dubious to begin with -- have since been withdrawn, the chatter around the "Saturday Night Fever" star's alleged double life is alive and well.

Many consider Travolta's supposed homosexuality to be one of Hollywood's worst kept secrets. "Obviously there has been a lot of speculation about two of Hollywood's biggest male stars around their sexual orientation and their relationship to Church of Scientology," said casting director Tammara Billik, without naming any names like Travolta or Tom Cruise, and adding that she was not in a position to confirm or deny the rumors.

Assuming Travolta is indeed gay or bisexual -- and we are not suggesting that he necessarily is -- what might be stopping him from coming out of the closet once and for all? (Besides his wife and children, of course.) The entertainment industry presents itself as being one of the most gay-friendly communities in the world. Countless Hollywood stars have broadcast their support of LGBT issues; whether it's the "NO H8 Campaign" or same-sex marriage legislation.

In March of this year, when born-again Christian Kirk Cameron told Piers Morgan he was against gay marriage and claimed homosexuality was "unnatural," numerous actors -- including his former "Growing Pains" co-stars Tracy Gold and Alan Thicke -- were quick to publicly criticize his comments and reinforce their own gay-friendly positions.

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"I am a strong supporter of the LGBT community, and I believe in equal rights for all," Gold tweeted two days after the interview aired. The same day, Thicke -- who played Cameron's father on the popular sitcom -- tweeted multiple messages decrying his TV son's comments. "Modern Family" star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Roseanne Barr, and Debra Messing also joined the chorus against Cameron's remarks.

When President Obama came out in support of marriage equality a few weeks ago, celebrities emerged in digital droves to back his position. A subsequent article in the Hollywood Reporter outlined how Obama's endorsement could translate into campaign donations from the entertainment "industry's gay elite."

Yet despite the liberal leanings in Hollywood, insiders say that it is possible that gay actors may still face prejudice -- and fear losing work because of their sexual orientation.

"Acting is a business of red flags," said Howard Bragman, a veteran Hollywood publicist and vice chairman of Reputation.com. "It's coming up with all the reasons we can't give somebody the part. He's too this, he's too that, he's not this enough, he's not that enough." In other words, there is a concern that being openly gay might be a negative tipping point, beyond other considerations, for an actor competing for a straight role against a straight actor. If so, things have not changed much since the days five decades and more ago when Rock Hudson and other leading men had to hide their homosexuality with trumped up marriages and public relations campaigns portraying them as good husbands and fathers.

"I think it's a business that likes to operate on a lot of fear," Bragman continued, adding that he believes there is a marked generational divide in perceptions about sexual orientation -- and sexuality in general. "There's a generation that thinks that what they do in their personal lives is no one's business."

Indeed, mainstream acceptance of the LGBT community -- and the public dialogue around it -- has increased rapidly and dramatically in recent years.

Ellen Degeneres made history when she came out on "The Ellen Show" in 1997. At the time, hers was the first openly gay character in a starring role on TV, and gay characters in supporting roles were few and far between. Clothing retailer JC Penney withdrew its sponsorship of the episode in protest of its controversial subject matter. Today, Degeneres is a spokesperson for JC Penney, and the company vocally supported the actress and talk-show host after the conservative group One Million Moms called for a boycott of the retail chain.

"When Ellen came out, a lot of Americans didn't know anyone who was [openly] gay. They barely knew the word," said Rich Ferraro, vice president of communications for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

"Across our culture, people are becoming more accepting of the community, so people are feeling more comfortable to come out," Ferraro continued, pointing to successful, openly gay performers like Ricky Martin and Neil Patrick Harris, who plays a ladykiller on the popular sitcom "How I Met Your Mother." Ferraro acknowledged that the film industry was slightly behind television in embracing gay actors.

"If you look at films in terms of gay people on screen playing either gay or straight -- gay characters or gay actors -- film traditionally follows television," he said.

"Films like 'Brokeback Mountain' -- which was the first time that a lot of Americans saw an accurate gay couple on screen -- definitely would not have happened if not for the success of shows like 'Will and Grace,'" Ferraro said. "I'm guessing there is more of a financial risk in the film industry. It could also be that studios and filmmakers are scared to be the first."

Industry hesitations aside, Bragman insists that gay actors are far better off if they are open about their sexuality -- even if their market value takes a temporary hit.

"I have worked with over a dozen people who have come out," Bragman said. "And everyone's been happy and grateful that they did this. Nobody has regretted the decision. Everyone feels like a burden has been lifted from their shoulders.

"In the vast majority of cases, people's careers have gotten more interesting and more fulfilling," he continued. "And in some cases it has renewed careers." But at least one of his clients -- country singer Chely Wright -- saw some negative repercussions after coming out.

"It certainly didn't help her country career, but it helped her soul," Bragman said.

"The balance is between your life and your career," he continued. "The question is, 'What kind of life do you want to live? Would you make the deal with the devil and say 'I'll stay in the closet and I'll marry a woman and have a sham marriage and live this fake life to be a $100 million action hero?'

"If that's the case, then that's fine. You made that deal with the devil. And you have to live with that deal. But I can't imagine that there's anything that resembles happiness or fulfillment there."

In 2011, Equity -- a UK-based artists' union -- surveyed its LGBT actor members, asking them if they felt it was "safe" to be out professionally. The poll "sought to gather a clearer picture on whether or not the entertainment industry is as open-minded as it is perceived to be when it comes to sexual orientation," said Max Beckmann, an Equity spokesperson.

While 94 percent of the respondents said they were open about their sexuality among fellow performers, only 43 percent had come clean with their agents -- and more than one-third of the respondents said they had experienced homophobia at some point in their career.

Citing how common it is for industry professionals besides performers -- agents, executives, casting directors -- to be openly gay, Billik was confident a similar survey among American LGBT actors would have different results. "I think there is a safer feeling for actors here," she said.

Still, "there are plenty of actors who are out in their personal and their professional lives but who have not made a public announcement about it."

Earlier this week, a New York Times profile revealed that Jim Parsons, the Emmy-winning star of "The Big Bang Theory," was in a long-term committed relationship with a male partner. While the disclosure received plenty of media coverage, the Times story didn't even play it up. "He has not been hiding anything, but he has not been making any proclamations," Billik said. Why make a big proclamation when your sexual orientation isn't really that big a deal for audiences?

"It's 2012," Bragman said. "The president is for gay marriage, we have gay TV stars, gay movie stars ... the demographic that everybody covets just doesn't care about this issue."

Ferraro agrees that an actor's sexual orientation is increasingly less likely to define -- or limit -- their career. "Now when actors come out it's not the scandalous story in the media that it used to be," he said.

Of course, it might be a different story if, for example, a super-famous A-list actor were to come out of the closet after years -- decades, even -- of living as a straight man (or woman).

"I do hope that someday, someone who is a big star will feel comfortable in coming out," Billik said, arguing that it would pave the way for future generations to shed any hesitations about acknowledging their own sexual orientation.

"I think it's a reality that it would have an impact" on an actor's public reception -- temporarily. "For a little while, it would cause ripples, and then it would stop and people would get over it," she said. "All it's going to take is one."

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