An LA Weekly profile of Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman asks a provocative question: is the time ripe for an A-list male actor to come out of the closet? Bragman thinks the answer is yes.
Patrick Range McDonald writes that Bragman, openly gay himself, has helped numerous celebrities and pro athletes with the "tricky and, for decades, risky terrain" of coming out. He currently works with Chaz Bono, whose gender transition from female to male was recently reported on TMZ. He's brought out actor Mitchell Anderson and NBA player John Amaechi. But now, he says, it's time for someone really big. McDonald writes,
The publicist hasn't brought out an A-list, gay male actor - yet. But Bragman says that day is coming, and after the first superstar decides to reveal himself, a fundamental shift in American acceptance of gay leading men may not be far behind. He's currently working with a famous musician who's still closeted from the public, but who will come out next year. And the manager of one major movie star approached Bragman a year ago and asked about his client's possibly going public, but the actor still refuses to pull the trigger.
"I felt a little frustrated with that superstar," Bragman says in reflection, "because it had to be ‘handled.' "
Bragman's frustration aside, Hollywood remains "a surprisingly conservative entity." Stars mobilized for a "No on Prop. 8" campaign, but McDonald says "the big studios and their mostly male chiefs - and the scores of socially liberal men and women who play key roles as casting directors and agents - have together created a kind of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which places enormous pressure on gay, male actors to remain in the closet." Bragman is confident this can change — he even says, "coming out can be used as a marketing tool." And McDonald cites some hopeful statistics — 89% of Americans now believe that gay people should have equal job opportunities, and 72% say they would not change their opinion of an athlete if they found out he was gay.
Still, gay actors face some challenges. Foremost is the fear that, as McDonald writes, "audiences would be uncomfortable seeing a known gay actor like Cheyenne Jackson kissing or fondling Kate Winslet, and box-office earnings would nose-dive." Neil Patrick Harris is famously both out and doing well, but he says that for years, "I wasn't thought of in a sexual way, which is easy when you have big ears and are called Doogie all the time." If someone who was a sex symbol and a "superstar" to boot chose to come out, the response might be different. And the process would be even more complicated if said superstar also had a high-profile heterosexual cover relationship, as it's safe to assume at least a few do.
Then again, the fiction that no one — or almost no one — in Hollywood is gay can't last forever. It's already been much remarked-upon that while straight actors can "play gay" (like Sean Penn in Milk), only a very few gay actors are permitted to "play straight." Given that the entire film industry is based on audiences agreeing to believe for a few hours that someone very famous is actually someone else, this seems obviously ludicrous. And perhaps it's true that if one "superstar" — one with enough clout to get movies made regardless of sexual orientation — actually came out, everyone would have to confront the ridiculousness of Hollywood's straight-washing. Still, when the movie industry can campaign against Prop. 8 one day and enforce a "don't ask, don't tell" policy the next, it's no surprise that no one's clamoring to be the first.