There won't be trumpets

Should we herald Tab Hunter and other celebs who come out late in life? Not so much, argues novelist and journalist John Morgan Wilson. Where have they been all these years?

BY John Morgan Wilson

December 19 2005 1:00 AM ET

For many years
one of my closest gay friends was a Tony-winning actor
who’d gained prominence on TV and in movies,
appearing in lightweight comedic roles. He was also in
the closet, terrified of being exposed.

In the 1970s, as
the gay revolution gained momentum, my friend took
advantage of the progress forged by activists, courting
young men prolifically and sneaking into gay gathering
spots without fear of arrest. But publicly he stayed
in the closet, letting others fight the battles. As
AIDS spread in the early ’80s and we needed all the
voices and visibility we could muster in the fight for
funding and equality, he played straight, going so far
as to plant a false item in the press about his
“engagement” to an ­actress friend. In
the late ’80s, when I was caring for my lover
as he died of AIDS complications, my friend remained
closeted. A couple of years later, as the controversial
practice of “outing” celebrities struck
fear into Hollywood, I reported on the issue for the
Los Angeles Times. My friend was upset with me
for even ­discussing the subject in print.

In the early
’90s, as high-profile performers started coming out
to join the cause, my friend stayed put. By then his
career had peaked; he was in his 50s, a comedic
character actor who rarely worked, not a romantic
leading man or action star for whom outing was a threat. Yet
even the topic of coming out was too sensitive for our
conversations. We saw each other less
­frequently; our friendship waned.

As the AIDS death
toll mounted, I finally stopped talking to him
altogether, so steeped in grief and anger that I could no
longer stomach his excuses and his silence.

Forgive me if I
don’t stand up and cheer every time another aging
celebrity like Tab Hunter, Richard Chamberlain, or George
Takei ventures from the closet when his career has
faded to score a book deal or plug a play, exorcise
his shame, and grab a final 15 minutes of fame.
They’re under no obligation to take a political
stand, of course, and have every right to come out if
and when they choose. But let’s not treat them as
heroes after they waited decades while others risked so much
to make it safe for them.

Look, I
understand why closeted stars don’t want it publicly
known that they’re queer. In my younger years I
dated two attractive actors just breaking through in
starring film roles—one nabbed a Golden Globe for
it—and I witnessed firsthand the pressure they were
under to keep their sexuality a secret. I’ve
explored the issue of the Hollywood closet as a
journalist and also as a novelist in Rhapsody in
, my next mystery novel, which revolves
around the murder of a gossip writer intent on outing
a star during the shooting of his latest picture.

generally opposed to outing. I figure that unless
celebrities vocally oppose gay rights or deliberately
mislead the media and the public about their sexual
orientation, they have the same right to privacy in the
bedroom as anyone else. In recent years a number of closeted
stars have uttered “no comment” to
questions about their private lives, without any
visible damage to their lucrative careers. That seems a fair
and reasonable way to handle it. It may not be brave,
but at least they’re not using the media to
propagate their lies.

At the same time,
I can’t forget the words of the late gay activist and
film historian Vito Russo, spoken to me as he wasted away
with AIDS: “I’m tired of defending all
the closet queens. People are dying. We need some help

It’s not
just people with AIDS who need help either. I’m
thinking about all the gay kids on the edge of suicide
because they’re so desperate for successful
role models and feel so alone. All the gay couples seeking
equal partnership rights under the law. All of us who are
queer, because the more of us who are willing to stand
up and be counted, the more minds we open and progress
we make. Consider the impact of Ellen and Rosie and
Elton and Ian and the many others who have come out while
they were still in the spotlight.

I wonder how much
more could have been accomplished, how many more people
might have been saved, if Hollywood’s aging closet
cases could have found the courage to speak out sooner
instead of staying silent so long that their public
coming-out doesn’t really matter much and even seems
a bit pathetic after all this time.

Better late than
never, I suppose. At least they’re finally out and no
longer validating the shame. But I hope they don’t
expect a parade.

Tags: Commentary