When I was 12 and growing up on Long Island, a relative gave me an anthology of the best plays of the sixties, which included Mart Crowley's classic The Boys in the Band. It was, even then, a dated work, but as a yeshiva student in Nassau County, how was I to know? Over the years, I read it again and again, looking for clues to my future, and I came away each time with a sinking feeling about the fate to which I seemed consigned. Those sad, witty men with their one-liners and piles of cashmere sweaters -- these were not the people I wanted to be. They were powerless, marginal, and ultimately expendable. No one would remember them.
But in New York, as I learned when I settled here in college, the gay world was anything but marginal. Even then, the city's infrastructure was full of powerful gays and lesbians -- bankers and lawyers and architects and actors. Everyone knew who was and who wasn't. But given the stigma attached to homosexuality, it was a subject deemed unfit for public consumption. Everyone adhered to an unspoken covenant: As long as gay people didn't make too much noise, straight people would look the other way. Sexual orientation was a subject of frequent gossip, but never of journalism.
It wasn't until the AIDS epidemic that this carefully structured agreement was abrogated -- by gay people. In the eighties, as bodies piled up without anyone seeming to notice, a new generation of activists and writers like Michelangelo Signorile began pointing out the price of our enforced invisibility in capital letters in the gay press, as in fuck you, david geffen. But righteous as the cause seemed to many, there was something gruesome about the spectacle of gay celebrities dragged kicking and screaming into the light. The press, for the most part, still observed the old bargain, even as gay life inched closer and closer to the mainstream.
All this was much on my mind last month as I began planning this issue. For gay people, the past decade has been one of unparalleled progress. So it seemed like an opportune moment to celebrate how much, and in what diverse ways, gays and lesbians have contributed to the city -- a chance to display, in a major magazine, gay power without apology.
I wrote to 40 prominent gay New Yorkers -- from Michael Kors to Edward Albee, Fran Lebowitz to Stephen Sondheim, Ingrid Sischy to Philip Johnson -- and asked them to pose for our cover. Three weeks later, only seven had agreed. The responses were fascinating. One man had his secretary inform me he was going out of town for six months. Another, a well-known producer, begged off, explaining his mother might be upset. One wrote me a nice note saying he'd love to, but he was "overexposed." "What gave you the idea that I'm even out?" wailed a television personality who called me upon receipt of my letter. (I replied that the fact that I saw him kissing his shirtless boyfriend in the middle of the Roxy led me to conclude he might be.) But the most honest response came from a well-known Wall Streeter, the sixth person to phone in his regrets one day. "Come on, kid," he said when I expressed my disappointment. "Don't take it personally. It's just business, you know?"
There are, of course, many perfectly valid reasons for not wanting to be on the cover of a magazine. But the hostility with which many greeted the invitation pointed to a more disturbing truth: Even as homophobia is in full retreat, gay public figures remain comfortably closeted -- no longer as a matter of survival but now as a matter of commerce. People are entitled to present themselves as they wish, to maximize their market value; I suppose they're even entitled to lie. But as a journalist, I'm tired of being expected to collude in their deception.
Back in the fifties -- when exposing people as homosexual would subject them not only to ostracism but also to violence and even jail -- the gay cover-up made sense. But these are vastly different times.
The closet I remember was a dark, lonely place, but the one gay celebrities now occupy is of the giant, walk-in variety, with ample room for friends and lovers, acquaintances, even journalists -- as long as we're discreet. These people enjoy all the benefits of an openly gay life -- they go to discos and clubs, take their lovers to public events, contribute to gay charities. They demand complete discretion from the media while displaying none themselves -- secure in the knowledge that the media will look the other way.
And we do. Journalists play along in the sincere belief that they are protecting gay people, but in doing so they serve the interests of a few individuals at the expense of the larger community. By dancing around the sexuality of gay public figures, they reduce them to oddly neutered figures: Like Mart Crowley's boys, they seem to live not only without sex but without love. Unless, of course, they elect to marry a woman.
The recent wedding of Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg epitomizes the media's convoluted approach to covering gay celebrities. I would not presume to speculate on their relationship, which is said to be a warm and genuine one. But it's also true that Diller did not live as a monk before his marriage at the age of 59 -- in fact, while Diller is often referred to as bisexual, he has lived most of his adult life as a more or less openly gay man. He has had both short-term boyfriends and long-term relationships (including one with a former editor-in-chief of The Advocate); he appears frequently at gay parties and gay benefits. His sexual orientation has even been referred to in print with regularity.
Still, because Diller had never actually sent out a press release acknowledging he was gay, journalists faced with the news of his wedding were in a quandary: All across Manhattan, reporters offered various explanations -- financial and otherwise -- for his apparent midlife transformation. But none, of course, made it into print.
In fact, in the reams of press devoted to the wedding, while most papers reported in detail the bride's romantic past, every trace of Diller's past was expunged. The Times' account of the "merger" coyly hinted at the groom's unconventional background. The story revealed that Diller was keeping his apartment and acknowledged that "after years of speculation about a relationship widely assumed to be platonic," many of the couple's "friends professed to be surprised" about the sudden union -- tipping off their in-the-know readers, while leaving less sophisticated ones in the dark.
It was hard to tell what purpose all this nervous dodging and weaving served. What would happen if someone dared to acknowledge the obvious? Would Diller lose friends? Would it hurt his business? Would it come as a shock to an unsuspecting aunt in Yonkers? Why does the press continue to play this game?
When you ask journalists about their uncharacteristic restraint, they tend to toss out bromides about "people's right to privacy." But at a time when Monica's every morsel is recorded for public consumption and Meg Ryan's romance with Russell Crowe was tabloid fodder for weeks, it's a right that seems very selectively championed. Celebrities may resent journalistic intrusions into their personal lives, but they are quite comfortable using edited versions of those lives to boost their commercial value.
Take Rosie O'Donnell. The talk-show host regularly regales her viewers with personal tidbits about her children and her home -- she once even installed a camera in her nursery -- but she never mentions the woman who shares both her life and her home. That, of course, is her prerogative, but are the media really compelled to play along? When Jack Nicholson shows up at a Lakers game with a date, the columns report it the next day. But when O'Donnell's blonde friend accompanies her week after week to her box at WNBA games, she turns invisible.
Besides, it seems inconsistent to insist that journalists toe the line when O'Donnell so often waltzes across it. On her show, she and Ellen DeGeneres made headlines when they both giggled about being "Lebanese." This year at the Tonys, she drew laughs when she referred to Nathan Lane as her "beard." A former student at UCLA remembers her as emcee of National Coming Out Day in the late eighties.
That's the funny thing about the modern closet: People move in and out at whim. Nathan Lane began backpedaling soon after he starred in The Birdcage, but came out again after the murder of Matthew Shepard. "It was like someone slapped me awake," he told The Advocate. "At this point it's selfish not to do what you can."
Even Sean Hayes, whose role as Jack on Will & Grace has made him a gay hero, is coy about his off-camera identity. He starred as a lovelorn gay guy in Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss and posed for the cover of Homo X-tra -- but ducks all questions about his sexual orientation. That is what's known -- whatever his preference -- as a tease.
More and more, the prohibition against discussing the sexuality of gay celebrities is enforced by publicists hired to promote their careers -- some of whom, not incidentally, are closeted gays themselves. Many media outlets -- dependent on celebrities for ratings and circulation -- accept these infringements on free expression as the cost of doing business. So reporters reluctantly sign contracts agreeing not to ask celebrities about their sexual orientation. Those who refuse are denied access or threatened with libel laws that even now equate calling someone gay with slandering him as an alcoholic or a thief. Rather than challenge an assumption that equates gay people with drunks, they implicitly endorse it. It's hard to see how gay people -- even gay celebrities -- benefit from that.
No one better illustrates this paradox than Kevin Spacey, whose sexual orientation has been a matter of public interest ever since Esquire slapped it on its cover. In a story published in October 1997, Tom Junod coyly addressed the rumors of Spacey's homosexuality, a "secret" the author claimed was old news even to his mother. Not surprisingly, the story ignited an immediate firestorm. Reporters bitterly denounced Junod for violating Spacey's privacy, and the actor's agent, Brian Gersh, vowed that none of his other clients would pose for Esquire again.
Before the Esquire article, Spacey was relatively unguarded about his sexual orientation -- it takes a secure man, after all, to take his mother as his date to the Oscars. Afterward, however, he was transformed. He began being photographed with a series of attractive women, talking to Playboy about how the gay rumors had improved his sex life ("Women want to be the one to turn me around. I let them.") and generally proclaiming his heterosexuality to anyone who'd listen. His macho makeover culminated last spring with an appearance on 60 Minutes. Responding to a question about the Esquire cover, Spacey insisted he wouldn't talk about his private life -- then spent much of the rest of the interview reassuring America that he was 100 percent straight.
The tabloids, of course, took this as a Gary Hartlike challenge, and the Star responded soon after, publishing a cover photo of Spacey and a handsome man snuggling in a Los Angeles public park. Spacey assumed that as brazenly as he had dissembled, the press would not give him up. This time, it seemed, he was wrong. But was he? The same reporters who gleefully picked up Frank Gifford's famous indiscretion didn't touch this Star exclusive. Instead, they continue to devote column inches to his very public romance with Helen Hunt.
Maybe it's time to reexamine the rules. the continuing prohibition on discussing sexual orientation is based on a presumption that while people on the coasts are sophisticated enough to accept gay celebrities, the masses in between are too backward and too bigoted to be let in on the truth. It's a patronizing notion. If nothing else, the cultural changes of the past few years have proved that Americans are more tolerant than they're given credit for; Will & Grace, after all, is a hit not only in New York but also in Kansas.
There was a time when the closet was a necessary safe haven. But now it exists as an anachronistic monument to shame. It's time for our public figures to stop hiding in there -- and for journalists to stop helping them. To some this might seem like a radical idea; but is it really so radical for journalists to simply report the truth?