An Online Magazine in the Reality-Based Community.

Handling -- or not handling -- gay rumors

Monday, August 07, 2006

The NYT has an article up, If You Must Know, I'm Straight that delves into how public figures are now handling the media's increasing willingness to inquire about sexual orientation.

If you ask me, the premise itself isn't correct -- I don't think the MSM is being all that forthcoming about bringing up the subject. Take a look at the glossy gossip mags, like US Weekly, InTouch (there's a long list of them) which focus endlessly on the private dalliances of figures. These pubs are not of the Enquirer ilk (exposing/outing); their main purpose is to cover celebrity relationships, lifestyles, trends, fashion, etc. -- and part of that is discussing Person A is dating/breaking up with Person B. This is casually tossed in our faces when the celebrity or public figure is hetero, or if the person is fully out of the closet (Elton, Rosie, Ellen, etc).

Here is how the NYT's Mireya Navarro describes the current public figure reaction to inquiries about orientation:
Step 1: State emphatically what it is you are not.

Step 2: Scoff at the rumor with good humor.

Step 3: Note, for the record, your true feelings about the rumor: not that there's anything wrong with that.

Or, skip steps 1 through 3 and opt for evasion with the nondenial denial: "I don't want to talk about my private life."

We are talking, of course, about denying the Gay Rumor, that surreptitious creature that attacks scores of entertainment, political and athletic personalities and that most recently has prompted disclaimers from Oprah Winfrey, the "Superman Returns" star Brandon Routh and Michael Strahan, the New York Giants defensive end.
In Oprah's case, she opted to address her close relationship with her best friend of 30 years, Gayle King by saying: "People think I'd be so ashamed of being gay that I wouldn't admit it? Oh, please."

Routh came clean on "Larry King Live," since there were many stories that ran on the 'Net before and during the release of the film about Superman's "gay appeal." This gave Larry King the opening to ask the question in the context of whether the discussions about this reading of the character could lead people to assume the actor was gay (Routh's response: "I'm very confident in who I am and my relationship with my lovely girlfriend.").

Strahan had to field the questions when his wife claimed during acrimonious divorce proceedings that he was having a same-sex affair (which she retracted), but for once, in the field of team sports, we had an athlete give a non-gay-bashing response, to Strahan's credit -- "I have plenty of friends that are bi or homosexual. It's fine with me. This is New York City. If you can't accept people for being people, then you have no business being here."

The forthrightness of media coverage gets questionable when you have these figures who are rumored to be gay for one reason or another -- they are never linked to anyone of the opposite sex publicly, they define their situation as "married to work," or, in the case of actors, they play gay onscreen and thus the subject of their orientation, in the media's eyes, becomes relevant.

There's also that gray area of public figures, like the recently self-decloseted Lance Bass of NSYNC, who are professionally have the closet door locked, but are socially out, even appearing in public with their same-sex partner. This kind of celeb declines to answer the questions about orientation until the rumors reach fever pitch (or the photos of the carousing/gay socializing hit the Internet). This is also the category of celebrity in most jeopardy of being outed nowadays, because in decades past, the media, and quite frankly, others in the gay community who knew that person was gay, and kept the public at large in the dark about those same-sex relationships. Kevin Naff of the Washington Blade addresses that in his column on Bass.
The key point that many readers — and mainstream media reporters covering the Bass story — missed is that Bass outed himself. Gays and lesbians are under no obligation to keep each other’s dirty little secrets and partying in P-town’s gay bars on a holiday weekend with a celebrity boyfriend in tow is not the behavior of someone living a closeted life.

Here’s the thing about privacy: it’s an easy thing to attain. Go home, lock your door and draw the curtains and you have privacy. Bass’ days as a teen heartthrob are long over. There are no paparazzi camped at his doorstep anxious to chronicle his every move. He is fully capable of living a quiet, private, closeted life. He made another choice.

Outing involves investigating and reporting on the private behavior of a public figure who denies being gay. Hanging out in gay bars doesn’t constitute private behavior. It didn’t take any sneaky detective work to uncover Bass’ sexual orientation. No one peered through his windows or sorted through his trash. He walked into a gay bar with his boyfriend and witnesses connected the dots. Sorry, but there’s no outing in this case.
Blogs, gossip sites and the ability to circulate rumors -- and evidence -- is clearly what is driving the MSM to finally address the issue. When mainstream publications and broadcast media continue the heteronormative default when the buzz on the 'Net is 180 degrees from it, that destroys their credibility. It looks as though they are conspiring to hide some kind of "dirty little secret" when the truth is already circulating elsewhere.

So the situation we presently have is really an increasing shift from the default assumption in media coverage that a public figure is straight if that person has not made it clear in some way. I'm sure that control freak PR flaks used to controlling the subjects covered in interviews with celebrities (think Tom Cruise) are under increasing pressure to allow reporters to "go there" with questioning, and are under even more pressure from their closet case clients to avoid the topic of sexual orientation or any rumors floating out there. There are a lot of A-list celebs who have the power to quash any discussion of this, threatening access to that celeb from the MSM outlet if it lobs the homo bomb question out there.

Access is the life blood of celeb rags and entertainment shows. That's why the MSM is only dipping a toe into this realm of truth-telling, or, to be more accurate, reality-based interviewing.
"The media is more willing to ask the question, because being gay has become a more publicly acknowledged fact of life," said Larry Gross, director of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and author of "Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men and the Media in America" (2001, Columbia University Press).

But while that may speak well of the achievements of the gay rights movement, some sociologists and gay advocates say that all the fuss over the Denial is one more indication of the stigma still attached to being gay.

"At least there's no longer the presumption that everyone is straight," said Laura Grindstaff, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, who teaches on gender and sexuality. "But this intense interest in knowing, and the need to deny, are problematic. Why does the difference matter? Because there are all these consequences."
Back in the day, you might remember Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford taking out an ad to declare their heterosexuality when rumors swirled about them both. That's the old school, paranoid reaction by the celeb set. There are now better celeb models to follow, like Jake Gyllenhaal, that show how far Hollywood has come in addressing the question:
Gay media watchers regard Mr. Gyllenhaal, who fielded questions about his sexual orientation after his starring role as a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," as a model for the right approach.

"I can honestly say I've never been attracted to a man sexually," he said, "but I don't think I'd be afraid of it if it happened."
For the homophobes like Mel Gibson, I wonder how his publicist would tell him handle the question today, as opposed to that 1992 interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais where he responded: "Do I sound like a homosexual? Do I talk like them? Do I move like them? I think not."

The PR flaks will continue to defend their masters in ways that perpetuate the idea that being gay is somehow wrong, and that's part of the problem.
The New York publicist Ken Sunshine said that among his celebrity clients, being an attractive 20-something man is almost a guarantee that gaydars will go off.

"It comes up all the time," Mr. Sunshine said. "The gay rumors are based on nothing and then they have to make the decision to comment on their sexuality." Mr. Sunshine said his media strategy varies depending on the circumstances and the wishes of his clients, most of whom he said choose not to comment.

"Sometimes I yell and scream, sometimes we threaten to sue, sometimes we try to charm," Mr. Sunshine said of how he deals with prodding from the news media. "It's very difficult to combat with the celebrity obsession that we're going through."
Mr. Sunshine needs to wake up. The Gay Question is not going to go away, so he's got to let his clients know how to gracefully answer the question.