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There won't be

There won't be


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?

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 Blood, 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.

I'm 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 here."

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.

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John Morgan Wilson