Back in the Closet, Gentlemen

“I was recently out pitching a sitcom to ABC,” confessed The New York Times Style section columnist Bob Morris in a panel discussion on June 21. “My agency realized there were so many gay shows that it was going to be a problem that I had a sitcom sort of based on a gay character. Frankly, it’s never art with a capital ‘A’ anyway when you’re talking to a network-so I said to the network guy, ‘Well, we think he’s gay, but frankly we’re a little tired of gay right now.’ I know that sounds like an awful thing to say on the one hand, but it has been that kind of a year.”

Yes, it has been that kind of year. The gayest year ever! Gay marriage, Queer Eye , I Am My Own Wife ! Gentrified Chelsea is now full of million-dollar one bedrooms, big enough for baby. It’s enough to make anyone “tired of gay right now.” We’re ready for Mr. Morris’ new character: gay to the writers and producers and cast mates, but-look!-straight to the audience!

Perhaps it was an ironic conclusion to draw from the panel-an assemblage of particularly avant-gays in West Chelsea discussing “The Importance of Being Out.” But media people like Mr. Morris, and the television executives who might buy a pilot from him, are not new to this idea of the “virtual closet”: the character whose sexuality is an open secret, but still a secret. After all, their industries are full of people just like that! By the end of the evening one had the distinct feeling that “out” may be on the way … out.

And so what? Is it perhaps time to consider-where circumstances permit it, of course-a defense of the closet?

There’s a reason that the gossips’ blind items now traffic so heavily in exposing-but not quite-the boldface names that never make it into type. Which TV reporter likes to mack on the boys at the East Village’s Phoenix bar? Which one used to wear the hood of his sweatshirt down over his forehead at the Roxy, ecstasy tablets extended in each hand like a nightclub Nurse Nightingale? Which mogul, which rapper, which model, which actor? Which which which?

It’s not that we would take pleasure in revealing them. There’s pleasure just knowing they’re here, and that we know who they are. (Shhh! Our lips are sealed.)

If Cole Porter were alive today he’d be Page Six “Just Asking” fodder every week. And wouldn’t you know, just in time for Gay Pride, De-lovely hits theaters, with Kevin Kline’s sure-to-be-nominated but de-camped portrayal of Cole Porter. It’s basically a scare film against the horrors of the closet and non-monogamy. It’s a purposefully muddy reflection of a man who came of age when brilliant and industrious gays wore red neckties to recognize each other-and were thrilled that their perverse sexuality was off limits to the breeders that surrounded them.

Is it simply retrograde nostalgia to imagine Cole Porter’s life to have been lived a little bit more elegantly, a little less tragically, than the one Mr. Kline portrays?

It seems, as Heritage of Pride plies its identity-politics wares at the coming annual Gay Pride events June 27, that some of Manhattan’s gay elite have arrived at a presentational impasse. The two obvious choices: flounce and dazzle, or “pass” and blend. Is it possible to flounce and pass? Dazzle and blend? Consider that third, time-honored tradition, one at which most gays and their pals have turned up their noses, but one that’s looking better all the time: the gentlemanly discretion, the politically perverted secrecy, the psychological boudoir of the closet. While the closet may have its straightforward uses in any of the towns named Springfield-and even for the kids in Brooklyn-being in the closet has an entirely different meaning in the upper crust of contemporary Manhattan: It’s the last outrageous choice.

Of course, it breeds only where choice is abundant. What passes in these environs as “discretion” looks a lot like secrecy to some. Maintaining a publicly non-gay identity, in this world, while everyone knows you’re gay, seems a bit like “headquartering” your Wall Street investment bank in Maryland for tax purposes: a (cynical, perhaps?) bid to consolidate existing power, not a last defense against being stripped of the small margin of power you have. It is a distinctly Manhattan, distinctly soigné choice. Perhaps that’s why Cole Porter did it so beautifully.

But just as it seems more and more appealing, finding a closet to stay in may get harder and harder. Recent legal rumblings forecast a coming change in the land of the closeted. In a footnote to an opinion on May 26 in Lewittes v. Cohen , New York’s Southen District Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. questioned whether Micheal Lewittes, news editor of the Star tabloid, was defamed by being called closeted on a Web site. “Given welcome shifts in social perceptions of homosexuality,” Judge Haight wrote, “there is good reason to question” whether the precedents that would support his claim of defamation should stand.

More strenuously, Federal District Judge Nancy Gernter, in a May 28 opinion in Albright v. Morton , dismissed James Albright’s claim that he had been defamed and injured by being misidentified as gay in a photo caption. “[T]he large majority of the courts that have found an accusation of homosexuality to be defamatory per se emphasized the fact that such a statement imputed criminal conduct,” wrote Judge Gertner in her decision. “This rationale is extinguished by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Lawrence v. Texas.” Lawrence struck down Texas’ sodomy laws, if you missed it.

So it may be that in the not-distant future we will see the end of the gay-baiting blind item-and the end of nearly any gay public figure’s expectation of privacy. Now things get a lot less fun for the rest of us, for now to be gay is officially to be harmless, and worse, to be common. What does a future with no closet look like?

Back at the “Importance of Being Out” panel, the crown princes and princesses of the art-gay set-choreographer Richard Move, agitant Larry Kramer, playwright Doug Wright, media fixture Maer Roshan, et al.-glowed before their insanely exuberant audience. There was more clapping than at a particularly tweaky Crystal Meth Anonymous meeting. (Among the panel’s sponsors, listed on a big banner in the front of the room, it is important not to confuse A/X, Armani’s homosexual-popular clothing line, and HX , the homosexual party magazine in which from time to time closeted party boys find pictures of themselves sweaty-faced and shirtless at circuit parties and nightclubs.)

But by the end of moderator Maer Roshan’s interrogation of the panel, no one really did address the Importance of Being Out. In fact, the panelists seemed unconvinced by our current spate of quantity over quality.

Why did the answer to every question seem to have something to do with television? “People forget that all television is a load of crap anyway,” said the surprisingly radical Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys (and Observer columnist), at one point. “They’re just cashing in, they’ve got great lives, they’re exercising their right to make cheesy entertainment. Bon jour !” (I swear he said “bon jour.” But perhaps I was hallucinating by that point.)

But it was East Village novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman who got it: “The AIDS crisis forced America to say that gay people exist …. Our mistake is that we code anything that says gay people exist as inherently progressive. That’s not so.”

Bearded gut-daddies and their husbears skulk the outer western Avenues, weaving in the evening toward Footfriends night at the Eagle. Some of them are sexual outlaws, and some of them are just happy that someone in this bulimic town loves a fatty. Tight-Italian-panted stick boys, the fashionistas, the magazine boys, the retail staffers and their cousins, the Eighth Avenue constantly-on-the-way-to-and-from-the-gym boys, respectively screech and jock their ways a bit closer to the center of Manhattan. Nearer in: the architects and account managers of the gay rugby team, the gay pool league. But smack-dab on Broadway stroll perhaps the largest gay constituency of all, the professional-and often closeted-gay men in their summer shirtsleeves. And no amount of Karen Walker’s delightful fag-haggery is going to convince them that they should come out.

You gay guys are probably so used to the closeted guy at your office that you don’t even snicker about it anymore. Maybe you even slept with him, years ago, though only the clueless Jersey-girl receptionist still thinks he’s cute. But he knows what the rest of the gays are about to find out: Social and legal acceptance breeds political apathy, bad fashion and non-penetrative sex. It turns out that secrecy and privacy, flavored with just a hint of shame, is the hottest gay lifestyle of all. And, better, not being “gay” allows one the strength to be gay any way one would like. Besides, it has been that kind of year.

One doesn’t make practical conscious decisions to remain in the closet-if they did, perhaps more gays would be. The Anti-Violence Project reported a 26 percent increase in reports of anti-gay (and transgender) violence in 2003 from 2002, from 513 reports to 648. There were 5 gay-bias-related murders reported in 2002; 9 reported in 2003. Whether this is an increase in reporting or an increase in actual acts of violence against gays is hard to tell. But many smokers don’t quit when they realize that yes, smoking does kill; neither, when presented with the dangers of idiot hatred, will the polesmokers.

Someone once said that a woman loses her power when the men in the office know who she’s sleeping with. After a million teen camgirls have written fan messages on their breasts live on the Internet, after finding dick pics of our lawyers on BigMuscle.com, we’ve all gotten a little experience in how personal transparency can disempower us-or at least, disillusion or horrify us. Check the careers of Barry Diller or Sumner Redstone for a financial analogy-in business, power is retained by keeping information private. And so, contrary to what Outweek or Out or Planet Out decided, staying in, with its soon-to-be-dismantled legal protections against scrutiny, can also be a position of authority and control.

Quite suddenly, it seems in retrospect, Manhattan’s ‘mos have lost most everything interesting they’ve invented in the last couple hundred years.

In bits and pieces, the gay sensibility has been exploited for the rest of the world-and the secret gay world of public sex went with it. Of all the cruising marathon that was once Manhattan, paltry options remain. According to cruisingforsex.com, there’s the Bally’s gym on 55th Street, the bathroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Broadway, the third-floor bathroom of the north end of the Time Warner Mall, Crunch at 42nd and 11th, the Toolbox on Second Avenue, Equinox at 44th and Lex, the Grand Central toilet downstairs in the food court-right in front of the armed soldiers-or La Fleur’s on 41st Street for hookers (if that’s what they are), and there’s a reason they call that one gym the New York Sex Club.

Sarah Schulman said something else memorable at that big gay panel. “When you pierce someone’s façade,” she said, speaking, actually, of homophobes, “you pierce their heart.”

In other words: The politically correct carapace of outness doesn’t promise purity. Nor is life in the closet always simply duplicitous.

In other words: watch what’s on the surface. As Oscar Wilde once said, “the honest man is soon found out.”

Starting with old Oscar, haven’t the gays of modernity given enough to the dominant culture in exchange for their bland assimilation? Haven’t they given so much that they’re left with nothing of their own anymore? Perhaps if they close off the V.I.P. room of gaydom for a couple decades, enter a comfy group closet, if you will, they can take back the pleasure, the thrills, the psychotic devotion to queer aesthetics. Think of this closet as a secret society, as mind-changing as Patty Hearst’s was, or sort of a Borg regeneration chamber-in 20, 30 years, once again the gays will have their own cant, their own ideals, their own identities. Then they can come back and sell it out again.