Outward Bound: Celebs Struggle To Keep Sexuality Secret(ish), But Media Make Mischief

At a crowded movie premiere in Midtown recently, The Observer witnessed a young movie and TV star—a dashing young man

Illustration by Dale Stephanos

At a crowded movie premiere in Midtown recently, The Observer witnessed a young movie and TV star—a dashing young man who’s been involved with several starlets despite whispers about his close relationships with other men—sitting for the entire party in close conversation with a well-groomed gent, even as his co-stars circulated. As we passed, the plus-one stared us down, as if to say, “Step off,” or perhaps, “Don’t you dare write about this.”

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Nor did we, since the question of whether it is news that a virile young actor was enjoying the company of one man—if not the company of men—is very much still open.

For decades, the practice of aggressively outing well-knowns was largely forsworn. Jim McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey, didn’t get the gay rumors swirling around him put into print until he declared himself a “gay American.” Jodie Foster’s long relationship with a female movie producer only went public when Ms. Foster acknowledged it in a 2007 awards acceptance speech. By that time, the pair had already raised two children together.

But with the increasing acceptability and mainstreaming of gay culture, the texture of how and why people come out or stay in the closet has become a more complicated issue, as has the media coverage surrounding it.

With the number of prying media outlets—TMZ, Perez Hilton, Gawker, TV newsmagazines like Extra, a vivified set of glossy tabloids—growing seemingly by the week, celebrities have come up with a new strategy to decline discussing their personal lives until they’re good and ready. Living in the so-called “glass closet,” they can forestall the legitimate press inquiring after their home life while also ensuring that their orientation is hardly breaking news. It’s being basically out, without having to answer any questions.

For instance, Queen Latifah’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment on this article, even after her performance at a gay pride event in Long Beach, Calif., raised eyebrows (“Queen Latifah didn’t make any big announcements at the Long Beach Lesbian
& Gay Pride Festival this weekend, but it seems she invited the world to read between the lines,” began one article on BET’s website). She was able to monetize the gay market with a wink and a nod, but actually coming out—if she is indeed gay—was out of the question. “I’ve never dealt with the question of my personal life in public,” Ms. Latifah told Entertainment Weekly this month. “It’s just not gonna happen.”

Or take Anderson Cooper. He’s built his brand by dishing on-air with gay icons Andy Cohen and Kathy Griffin, all while leaving his personal life very, very personal. Never mind all the photos of his trawling lower Manhattan with gay-bar owner Benjamin Maisani—or the fact that his revealing memoir omits any mention of a love life.

The “nobody’s business but my own” argument—which Mr. Cooper rarely if ever has even had to verbalize, despite being the author of a soul-baring memoir on many other subjects—may be familiar. It’s a cannier, more media-trained dodge of the question than Clay Aiken’s elision, in Rolling Stone in 2003. “One thing I’ve found of people in the public eye,” he told that magazine, “either you’re a womanizer or you’ve got to be gay. Since I’m neither one of those, people are completely concerned about me.” Or when Latin singer Ricky Martin told Barbara Walters in 2000, without gendered pronouns, in response to questions about his sexuality, “I live la vida loca!”

Both of those singers are, by now, completely out of the closet, though they were allowed to emerge, by the large media outlets, on their own terms—testament to the fact that outing is still the third rail of old-school print media. For instance, New York’s story about the city’s “trophy boys,” which listed attendees at an all-gay party on Fire Island, prompted a number of angry letters and to this day is not on the magazine’s capacious website. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg’s marriage is treated as legitimate—and, hey, maybe it is! *NSYNC singer Lance Bass’s coming-out in People in 2006 was treated as breaking news, though gossip blogs cited photos of him in Provincetown, Mass., with a gay reality-TV star as meeting the burden of proof quite some time before.

Outward Bound: Celebs Struggle To Keep Sexuality Secret(ish), But Media Make Mischief