When Colton Haynes came out earlier this month following years of speculation from the LGBT press and fans, he expressed his regret for “letting people down” by not revealing his sexual orientation earlier.
“I should have made a comment or a statement, but I just wasn’t ready,” the Arrow actor told Entertainment Weekly, adding, “Everyone has to make those decisions when they’re ready, and I wasn’t yet. But I felt like I was letting people down by not coming forward with the rest of what I should have said.”
Charlie Carver, a former Teen Wolf star, echoed this sentiment when he came out in an Instagram post in January. In a candid assessment of his own struggles, Carver demystified how the closet is not only a dangerous place for the individual. When it comes to celebrities, the harm is broadcast. In his estimation, the actor was “complicit” in contributing to a culture of shame.
"I now believe that by omitting this part of myself from the record, I am complicit in perpetuating the suffering, fear, and shame cast upon so many in the world," Carver wrote. "In my silence, I’ve helped decide for you too that to be gay is to be, as a young man (or young woman, young anyone), inappropriate for a professional career in the Arts.”
In a post-marriage equality world, where less than half of teens identify as straight, it may be surprising to some that so many gay and bisexual actors are still silent about their sexual orientation. Yet, despite social and political advances, the closet persists in Hollywood. Some point the blame at the actors themselves for its obstinacy. They question whether an actor's desire to advance his own career is sending a mixed message about acceptance to the public, and if his silence is coming into conflict with an obligation to his community.
“Knock it off. You’re being selfish,” Julie Klausner, the creator of Hulu’s Difficult People, told closeted actors in an interview with The Advocate. “There’s generations of people that can benefit from you taking the privilege you have of being a public person into a personal realm.”
Klausner — an ally whose show includes several LGBT actors, including costar Billy Eichner — reminded these actors of the “responsibility” to be out and proud that comes with living in the public eye.
“I’m not saying that everyone has the responsibility to make their personal life public, but I think that when you deal with people that are public, there is a responsibility that comes with that,” Klausner continued. “The responsibility has to do with visibility, and a big part of visibility is ... being a role model, whether you want to or not.”
“To lead by example in saying, ‘I’m comfortable with who I am, because I know who I am,’ is, I think the most selfless thing you can do for the [LGBT] community,” she concluded.
Not everyone agrees with Klausner’s point of view. Historically, actors like Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart have cited the boundary between private and public lives as an excuse not to discuss their sexual orientation. As Foster stated in her coming-out speech at the 2013 Golden Globes, "If you had been a public figure from the time you were a toddler, if you'd had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else."
Justin Kelly, a gay director whose new film, King Cobra, tackles murder in the gay porn industry, also defended the right to this privacy at his movie’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“If an actor doesn’t want to come out, I think it’s their agenda,” said Kelly, whose previous project about an ex-gay activist, I Am Michael, featured Carver before his coming-out. “People shouldn’t try to pull them out unless it’s causing a problem. But otherwise, mind your own business.”
Yet at what cost? While many defend the right to remain closeted, others like Michelangelo Signorile have equated it more to prison than privacy.
“There is no ‘right’ to the closet. If you are in it, it is not by your choice," the gay journalist told The Advocate in an article that defended the right of reporters to ask celebrities about their sexual orientation. "You were forced into it as a child, and you are being held captive by a hypocritical, homophobic society. Now is the time to plan your escape.”
So why not escape? The reasons for staying in the closet are complicated and varied, if you ask those who smile for the cameras (or hold them) for a living. But the bottom line is monetary. For many talent representatives and studio and network powers-that-be, gay actors, in part due to the complicated prejudices of society, are seen as less of a commodity than straight leading men, who are selling sex and its promise to mass markets.
For gay actors, there is a very real perception that if they reveal themselves to be anything other than the heterosexual ideal, their stock among producers and the public will plummet. In this nightmare scenario, doors close. Actors once thought of as leading men would be forced into "gay" types, with a grim future that includes, if they’re lucky, variations of AIDS patients and sassy best friends.
This perception is reinforced by forebears in this industry like Rupert Everett, the British actor who came out in 1989. The My Best Friend's Wedding star has stated multiple times that coming out ruined his career as a mainstream actor. He’s also advised others to remain in the closet.
"There’s only a certain amount of mileage you can make, as a young pretender, as a leading man, as a homosexual. There just isn’t very far you can go,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2014.
Closeted movie stars do contribute to a closeted culture. But the larger entertainment industry, including its many gay producers, casting directors, and agents, bear the brunt of this responsibility. Gay roles, as few as they are, still rarely go to gay actors. In King Cobra, for example, many of the lead characters are gay, but none of the actors who play these parts — James Franco, Christian Slater, Keegan Allen, and Garrett Clayton — openly identify as such (although Franco has stated that he identifies as gay in everything but sex).
This disconnect between out actors and characters is especially evident during awards season. As The Advocate reported, out of over 50 Oscar-nominated LGBT roles, only one nominee, Ian McKellen, has actually been out.
Actor Joel Michaely experienced this discrimination firsthand when, after playing geek roles in films like Can't Hardly Wait, he portrayed a gay character in the 2000 cult film But I'm a Cheerleader. Although he is proud to be part of a movie that skewers "ex-gay" therapy and has become an intrinsic part of the queer canon, he also saw how the offers dried up after its release. Michaely had not even come out yet—portraying a gay character at the time was enough to hurt his career.
“Gay actors coming out help other gay actors come out and live a much happier, healthier life,” he said. “The problem is that most gay actors get a horrible backlash and are not able to survive and thrive in their craft, because they don’t get the opportunities [they once had].”
“People feel like they have to come down to the decision of career or living a happy, honest life,” he said. “I would like to think that living a happy, honest life is always going to win, but that is not always the case.”
As a producer of films like I Am Michael and Space Station 76, Michaely has also observed how operations behind the scenes can lead to a closeted culture. For investors in a potential war film, he drew up a list of 25 names as possibilities for leading men. Only one of the actors, Matt Bomer, was an out gay man. Guess who got cut.
"We feel that he’s just not right,” Michaely recalled the team telling him amid nervous glances, after he questioned why Bomer was axed. “It was purely because he’s gay,” said Michaely. “Because the fact of the matter is, Matt Bomer is an excellent actor who’s great for the role, and we should be so lucky to have him."
According to a recent GLAAD report, LGBT characters were few and far between in major studio films in 2015. Only eight movies passed its Vito Russo test, which requires such characters to be three-dimensional and defined by more than their sexual orientation or gender identity. Essentially, there is a paucity of job opportunities. And while television is outpacing film in diversity, a Pride.com review shows that the majority of gay roles that exist are played by straight actors.
Michaely compared this practice to blackface and questioned why LGBT people remain the only minority group for which Hollywood gets a pass to discriminate in casting.
“All these amazing gay actors out there are not having the same opportunties that heterosexual actors have,” said Michaely, who recounted several recent auditions for gay roles in which straight men got the parts. “That is not fair. That is not inclusive. That’s mocking our people. It’s an affront. And I’m over it.”
These rules don't just apply to leading men in mainstream movies. Michaely has observed a lack of gay characters where their sexual orientation is not a central tenet of the storyline.
"How come on every medical drama show, on every crime scene show, there can’t be a witness that just happens to be gay? Or a doctor that just happens to be gay? Are gay people not witnessing crimes in real life? Are gay people not educated enough to be doctors? It’s completely absurd," he said.
To create more opportunities for gay actors and to help them come out, Michaely proposed creating a database where out actors can list their sexual orientation. While this move might trouble some, it is becoming standard practice to seek out diverse actors for roles in casting breakdowns, as well as in writers' rooms. A move for inclusion of LGBT actors in LGBT roles could transform the media landscape and the variety of roles currently being televised.
And diversity doesn't just look good on paper. There are actual monetary rewards. With the Diversity-In-Casting Incentive, as outlined by SAG-AFRTA, low-budget films can increase their production costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars if women, actors who are age 60 or older, performers with disabilities, and actors of color receive a certain percentage of speaking roles and working days. Why not also consider gay and bisexual actors, who are already included in diversity acting showcases, as diverse assets as well?
Jason Stuart also saw doors close when he came out in 1993. The gay actor, whose credits include a hairdresser in Kindergarten Cop as well as the officiant of a same-sex marriage in Love Is Strange, remembered hearing from casting directors at the time that he was suddenly "too light in the loafers" for certain roles. Yet in recent years, he has observed a cultural shift for the better. He himself appears in the much-anticipated film by Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation, in which he plays a straight slaveholder from the 19th century. It's a role he wouldn't have dreamed of landing two decades ago.
"Everybody has a choice to be in or out, whatever they want to do," he said, after reflecting on his career. "I believe that very strongly. But I do believe that choice comes with consequences to your own community. Because when you’re out, you’re out for me and I’m out for you."
"Being out is still so powerful," Stuart continued. "You cause a change just by being, just by your existence. And that’s what I hope to do."
The pressure to conform to the image Hollywood perceives as marketable is not limited to LGBT actors. At a recent Tribeca Film Festival panel, Rosie Perez recounted with disgust how a former talent representative suggested she whiten her appearance through plastic surgery. She fired the agent. She felt such a practice would be a betrayal to her background, community, and identity.
When asked by The Advocate if she had advice for gay actors who are undergoing a similar pressure to conform in order to further their career, Perez offered the following words of wisdom.
“I don’t believe in forcing anyone out of the closet," she said. "But I would say this. There is so much freedom when you step outside of that closet. There’s so much freedom. As a person of color, I endured so many doors being shut in my face. I’ve endured being shut out. Being discriminated [against]. And it hurts. It hurts a great deal. But you can’t let that hurt rule your life."
"Be proud of who you are, regardless of what that may be, regardless if you’re from the LGBT community or not," Perez concluded. "You’re a human being, and you have a right to a great life. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.”
Photo via Instagram.com/ColtonLHaynes