Comment: Gay Hollywood. Two steps forward, two steps back
It was the headline that spread like a California wildfire. Queen Latifah was to marry her longtime girlfriend/personal trainer and come out publicly following promotional duties for her latest flick, The Perfect Holiday.
Though admittedly sceptical, the gays rallied. Would the A-lister finally say publicly what we’ve known for years?
To be fair, we had reason to hope.
After 14 years of essentially keeping her personal life under lock and key, Jodie Foster, hot on the heels of presenting an award at The Trevor Project’s annual Cracked Xmas celebration, thanked longtime partner Cydney Bernard, who “sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss.”
It was the first time she’d publicly acknowledged Bernard and, while she didn’t say the three words that would have made it undeniable, given all the press the pair have attracted over the years, it was her version of an announcement.
She’s sidestepped the issue, changed the subject, said the topic isn’t open for discussion, but she’s never said, “I’m not gay.”
Latifah, after saying in several interviews she feels most connected to her openly gay character Cleo in the bank heist flick Set It Off, spent a decade saying claims she’s a lesbian are just rumours.
Though she’s become more careful not to flatly dismiss lesbian tabloid fodder as lies, she quickly swept the latest run of headlines under the rug when she told a reporter from the Chicago Sun Times:
“When you’re famous these days, it’s just part of the deal, unfortunately. People will make up all sorts of things that are not true. …There ain’t gonna be no wedding.”
And just like that, our hopes were dashed.
And it’s not the first time a celebrity has inched toward the closet door only to firmly slam it when the press got too nosy.
Earlier this year, when British singing sensation Mika turned up on the cover of Out magazine and people in the industry began whispering at a dull roar that this was his “coming out” interview, the resulting story was DOA.
His quotes were vague, to say the least.
“Anyone can label me,” he said in the interview, “but I’m not willing to label myself. Anybody who says that I don’t talk about sexuality or that I don’t politically sexualise my music because of taboos, because of being afraid of [not] selling records, is completely wrong.
“I’ve made a record that doesn’t compromise in any way what I’m allowed or not allowed to say in my lyrics.”
Stars like Ricky Martin, who have been photographed in extremely homoerotic encounters and referred to lovers as “partner” in interviews, refuse to discuss their sexuality.
Clay Aiken, who had a profile posted to gay hookup site Manhunt.net, managed to get that swept under the rug with a hit Christmas album.
Michelle Rodriguez, who was outed by then-girlfriend Kristanna Loken on the cover of The Advocate, retracted the statement, claiming she’d never come out.
It’s a trend in Hollywood, two steps forward, two steps back.
Foster’s speech, which was made at a mainstream event, Hollywood’s Women in Entertainment Power 100 brunch, was a definitive leap forward, something Grazia magazine reporter Kiki King told CNN could, despite all wishful thinking that it wouldn’t, hurt the Oscar winner’s career.
“Women largely still have to be very thin, very beautiful and very straight in order to be able to get roles and become A-listers,” King explained on CNN.
“I definitely think it could affect her career in that sense. But a lot of the gay publications, a lot of the gay websites say that that’s not good enough, that these people, because they are celebrities, ought to be on the front line, because they ought to be able to take on these roles of leadership.”
In a 2005 interview with the Dallas Voice, comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer echoed those thoughts.
“At this point Jodie Foster should just come out. She’s not an ingénue anymore. You know, it really saddens me because Jodie Foster could do so much good.”
And in the years since that quote, Foster has been captalising on Westehoefer’s wishes, if not directly by saying ‘I’m gay,’ then certainly through her actions.
Earlier this year, she made the single largest financial contribution in the history of The Trevor Project.
Her subsequent volunteer work has shown she puts her money where her mouth is.
And while recent film roles, including her Golden Globe-nominated work in The Brave One, suggest Foster is becoming increasingly less concerned with how her sexuality is portrayed in film,
King suggests that, as hard as it would be for Foster to come out, for a man, the situation is even worse.
Despite the success TV stars like T.R. Knight and Neil Patrick Harris have had with coming out and maintaining their careers, in film, a mix of leery studio execs afraid to take a chance and an untested, unproven track record with American audiences has prevented anyone from taking that first step.
According to King, the situation for men in film would likely pose a threat to future work, something that, despite an increasingly tolerant American public, has put us a long way off from seeing an openly gay, above the marquee male celebrity.
“Absolutely it [is],” she says, “especially for male actors who play action type roles. I think that is, really, one of the last divides.”
Many argue that Latifah would face a similar dilemma.
Though by no means an action star and not typically one to star in films that require her to be overly feminine, a substantial core of Latifah’s audience is black.
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Consider the reception recent theatrical releases like Dirty Laundry received from the black community and it’s easy to see why Latifah might have reason to worry.
Still, King argues that what this really boils down to is the fact that, right or not, being gay is still an issue.
That we have to have segments on CNN and magazine articles pondering sexuality at all is evidence a career might suffer were a star to come out.
“Ultimately, in an ideal world, somebody like Jodie Foster, it doesn’t matter whether she says she’s gay or not. She wouldn’t have to come out and admit her homosexuality because it’s just part of her private life. Nobody asks Julia Roberts to define her heterosexuality.”
Ross von Metzke
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