He should be the out celebrity gays continually clamor for. At just 28, Lance Bass already has an impressive and varied list of accomplishments: a record-shattering stint with the band 'N Sync, a memoir on The New York Times best-seller list, a role singing and dancing on Broadway, and a Human Rights Campaign award. Hell, the kid even endured several grueling months of training -- plus surgery -- to win NASA's endorsement for a trip to the International Space Station.
So why do some of you -- and you know who you are -- see him on the cover of this magazine and scoff? Is it because he's "just a pop star" -- as though that's a genre of music that gay people have suddenly rejected? Is it because his coming-out interview in People magazine convinced you that he must be a self-loathing homosexual? Or is he just not your type?
Whatever the reason, Lance Bass can't seem to catch a break from us. What you might not realize is that he knows it. He's heard every complaint and every rumor -- at least he thought he had, until he wandered into the bathroom of a New York gay bar a few weeks ago and overheard two men scheming in the next stall. Their plan? To snap a picture of Bass with a camera phone and send it to Internet gossip Perez Hilton, then claim they had a threesome.
"I'm hearing this, and I just want to knock down the door and say, 'Are you kidding me?' " Bass relates, incredulous. "They didn't even know I was there, and it's crazy to hear people plotting against you just because they can."
That sort of negative attention is nothing new for Bass, who seems both adored and scorned by gays in equal measure. Just check out the comments section on any gay blog: The very same people who swoon to any comment by Jake Gyllenhaal will bare their fangs for Bass, invariably declaring, "Why is he famous again?" Does it ever make him feel like gay people can be somewhat...
"Fickle?" Bass supplies, chuckling. "You know, every community is hard to please. Our community is very fickle. It's a touchy community because it's the last civil rights movement we have left here in America. So when someone new like myself comes along and says off-the-mark things, yeah, I can see how people would get pissed."
In person, Bass seems like an unlikely target for anyone's vitriol. Reserved, well-spoken, and unfailingly polite, he freely cops to growing pains in his first year as an out gay man -- a year in which his coming-out announcement was followed by two more, from T.R. Knight and Neil Patrick Harris. But while those actors publicly came out in their 30s -- after having lived at least a decade as men who were out in their private lives -- Bass came out at 26, just a few short years after he'd had his first gay relationship.
At times that inexperience showed. Only two months after he came out to his parents in May 2006, rumors about Bass's sexuality were becoming so pervasive that publicist Ken Sunshine recommended a People magazine tell-all. Though Bass expected he'd have at least a week to mull the idea over, People sparked to the plan immediately, scheduling a photo shoot and interview for the very next day. The day after that, the magazine decided to bump Johnny Depp off the cover, and released its newest cover to the media: Bass, with the words I'M GAY emblazoned in huge yellow letters.
"When most people come out, they deal with it out of the public eye, and they start getting educated about it," Bass says. "Me, I had 24 hours to say what I had to say on a subject that I had no clue about."
The result was a cover story that went a long way to further gay visibility but still prompted sniping from many gays -- especially for employing the divisive phrase "straight-acting."
"That People magazine article was hilarious," says Perez Hilton, who often covers Bass on his widely read blog. "If Lance Bass is a straight-acting gay, then I eat pussy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
Even now, Bass blanches when he's reminded of the term, which he calls a rookie mistake. "It was a very normal phrase among my circle of friends--and they'd always say, 'You're such a SAG' -- a straight-acting gay. So I reveal that to People magazine, and it looks like I created this phrase and [that] I'm trying to start this movement that you should be straight-acting if you're gay. It's just dumb!"
Bass was unaware that the phrase is often used by men who are still adjusting to their sexuality, and it was his first lesson in what some of his forerunners already know all too well: The relative paucity of openly gay celebrities means that those who are out bear the burden of the hopes, dreams, and scrutiny of gay people vying for visibility. In other words, if you're going to be an ambassador for the gay community -- and at Bass's level of fame you inevitably will be--you need to know your shit.
Since then, Bass has strived to educate himself -- even dipping his toe into gay activism by becoming involved in Logo's Visible Vote project--but his gradual evolution has been intentional. "I knew last year that when I came out, if I said, 'OK, I'm going to lead every parade and I'm going to speak at every engagement,' half of the community would say, 'Screw you! Who are you to come out and start speaking for everyone?' " He adds, "That's why I held back and was like, OK, I said my piece now; I'm just gonna lay back and get way more educated about myself, about the community, and not pretend I know what I'm talking about."
He laughs. "Then, of course, the other half of the community is like, 'Why don't you do more?' So it's very hard to please everyone."