When my college roommate came out of the closet, he introduced me to a game I call “closet watching”. In his newfound Pride (as dyslexics and lefties tend to do as well), he kept telling me about all the famous people that were gay. This was back in the mid-1980s when there were very few “out” celebrities. A lot of them, like Elton John, Richard Simmons, and Freddy Mercury, fell into the “Well, duh!” category. Some, like Richard Chamberlain, Lily Tomlin, and Jim Nabors, were news to poor sheltered me. Others were pure wishful thinking on his part.
Anyone suspected of being gay went on the Closet Watch List. We would watch for evidence in the press or gossip magazines for evidence one way or another. Many times he was eventually vindicated, but not every celebrity that was rumored to be gay was. Burt Reynolds really was very, very sick.
Then Rock Hudson died of AIDS and this parlor game went mainstream. There are tabloids that have annual, or it sometimes seems weekly, Are They Gay? issues. These articles rarely “out” anyone not already out and are usually just innuendo-ridden rehashes of existing speculation.
In this post-Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that” era, closet watching is a much more challenging sport. Even today, some gay celebrities have public personas where it would damage their careers if their fan base knew the truth. One of the unwritten rules is that while it is okay with the mainstream media to be gay, being a hypocrite about your orientation is grounds for scrutiny. The press has developed a set of dog-whistle adjectives to alert those in the know while still sounding innocuous to the general public. For example, gender neutral references to a “partner” or “companion” are a good clue.
Now it seems that there is a male figure skater named Johnny Weir that is rather flamboyant, but not publicly “out”, even though his behavior leaves little doubt about what side of the fence he is on. Who knew there were gay figure skaters? Well, the Advocate claims that half of the recent medal winners are, and they should know. I know I can’t name seven openly gay figure skaters and most people can’t because that is personal information they don’t share with the world.
Hank Stuever of the Washington Post wrote an exceptionally catty article called Out? In? Or Past All That? Johnny Weir's Fancy-Free Skate. The general tone of the article was Johnny, you silly nellie, why are you being so coy? You’re not fooling ANYone, girfriend. Hank Stuever is a very talented features writer who just happens to be gay (A fact not prominently mentioned on his website bio, but why should it be?). He has written excellent articles in the past about closeted celebrities and politicians. I just found the article on Weir particularly mean-spirited. Would such an article have passed muster or even have been considered if the subject had been a hyper-masculine female speed-skater instead of a Bjork impersonator?
Stuever is not the only writer to take a stance on this issue. David Haugh wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune that quoted Rudy Gallindo trashing Weir for his reticence. Being called “over the top” by Rudy is a serious bitch-slap. In counterpoint, Philip Hersh of the same paper took offense to the article in his offical blog saying he doesn’t “give a damn” about Weir’s orientation. Ann Killion of the Mercury News also had a great defense of Johnny’s privacy. For the record I agree with a lot of this article.
When a putatively straight male like me sticks a toe into the waters of sexual identity politics, it can only turn out bad. No matter what I say, I will be branded either a latent homophobe or a humorless politically-correct priss. So as an exercise, I am going to make a list of celebrities, none of which I know for a fact is gay, and it’s very likely that some are not. Then I am going to ask a series of questions that I will not even attempt to answer myself. Think them over.
- Who on this list would it be safe to write a bitchy article about what an obvious closet queen they are?
- Who can be safely ridiculed for blatant hypocrisy about their private lives?
- Which careers would be affected positively or negatively if they were to come out?
- Is flamboyance a positive or negative trait for a gay celebrity?
- Do gay celebrities have an obligation to be a role model for closeted homosexuals?
- Can only gay writers write articles ridiculing closeted gay celebrities?
Johnny’s Olympic medal hopes were dashed when he, as some wags put it, “flamed out” during competition. I’m sure the controversies over his orientation, whether self-inflicted or not, didn’t help his mental preparation. Let’s hope for a world where one day these sort of private conflicts do not have to be public issues.
Update: In the February 22 Post, Libby Copeland writes Drop Till You Shop about a purse-shopping trip with Johnny to Louis Vuitton without mentioning his sexuality once. That's a way to give us a peak inside his closet (literally) without dragging him out.