I grew up in a gay household, and I had no fucking clue that my father was homosexual until the day I discovered a large stack of Playgirl magazines hidden away in a locked drawer in his desk (even then, it took a while to fully realize it). By that point, my father had convinced a lot of people, for over 40 years, that he was straight (including my mother, who had three children with him). It had never even occurred to me that he was gay because he had never exhibited any of the characteristics that television and the movies had taught me to associate with homosexuality. No, he didn’t like sports, and he was very particular about his hair, but that’s true of a lot of men. In fact, he was so atypical of gay men as depicted in the popular media that, even when dudes slept overnight on the couch, it never even occurred to me that he was banging them after I fell asleep.
Gay Newsweek columnist Ramin Setoodeh, in his much discussed column this week, has raised a lot of issues around the Interwebs about what it means to act gay or straight in movies, in television, and even on the stage, arguing that openly gay actors — by virtue of being openly gay — have a difficult time convincing their audiences of the heterosexuality of their characters. A lot of celebrities have weighed in this week; Kristen Chenowith fired the first shot. “Glee’s” Ryan Murphy declared war, and now others are joining, including most recently openly gay screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, who has joined GLAAD in protesting Newsweek. Others, including Mike Alvear, have even come to defense of the Newsweek column, arguing (maybe even reasonably): “What’s the difference between seeing Sean Hayes in a straight role and thinking “HE’S GAY” and watching Tom Cruise in any role and thinking “HE’S AN IDIOT?”
What I don’t think has been addressed (or rather, I haven’t seen it addressed yet, though given the proliferation of think pieces out there on the subject, surely it has already) is the slight note of hypocrisy in Ryan Murphy’s assault of Ramin Setoodeh. I fully agree with all of what Murphy wrote in his open letter, but what he doesn’t himself address is something that Aaron Sorkin, over on The Huffington Post, brought up: “An actor, no matter which sex they’re attracted to, can’t “play” gay or “play” straight. Gay and straight aren’t actable things. You can act effeminate and you can act macho (though macho usually ends up reading as gay), but an actor can’t play gay or straight any more than they can play Catholic.”
That was the point I was trying to make, and that many people missed, when I posted that frivolous Seriously Random List on “The Five Gayest Straight Actors in Hollywood.” That was five presumably straight actors who, in some instances, fit the stereotypical mold of a gay character. I don’t think any of those guys are actually gay (except for maybe Tom Cruise), any more than I think Hugh Jackman is gay because he likes to sing and dance — that just makes him awesome. And the many folks who chimed in to say, “Who cares if he’s gay?” are exactly right. Nobody should care if they are, any more than those actors (or the movie blogger) should care if people think they are (although it might bother my wife occasionally, I certainly don’t care if readers think I’m gay; if you grow up in Arkansas and don’t hunt, fish, or abuse your wife, then you’re bound to be called a “fa**ot” a few times. You accept it as a compliment because it means you’re not an asshole homophobic needle-dick redneck with some serious insecurity issues).
The point I’m getting at about Ryan Murphy is this: He’s not making it easy by saddling his gay character in “Glee” with every goddamn stereotype in the book. I like “Glee,” and I like Kurt, but he’s not exactly blowing up the stereotypes: He’s essentiating them. Here’s a kid who dresses well, moisturizes a lot, loves showtunes, and hates sports. I have no idea if the actor who plays Kurt is straight or gay, but if he is gay, my guess is that he’s not gay as depicted in “Glee.” But that kid sure does a hell of a nice job of portraying a stereotype.
The larger point here is that Ramin Setoodeh might not have ever been able to even make his argument in the first place if it weren’t for the fact that, in movies and television, too many gay characters act gay — as dictated by people who apparently have never met a gay person in their lives — instead of acting like people. As Sorkin wrote, you can’t act gay any more than you can act straight. We all fulfill some of those gay stereotypes (I think Ryan Reynolds is attractive and I moisturize — that’s just good sense, people), as well as the straight ones (I watch 12 hours of NFL a week during the football season and I have sex with a woman), but it doesn’t mean we’re either/or. It just means we’re people with varying interests.
Indeed, television would be a much better place and we wouldn’t have to worry about gay actors being typecast as flaming queens if all gay characters on television were more like these five below, who are characters who just happen to be gay instead of gay characters. Particular respect should be paid to number five, a character that was on television around the same time as “Will & Grace.” I had almost completely forgotten that “Spin City’s” Carter was gay until I was putting together this post. And, as I recall, that was even a big part of the show’s humor: Stuart’s (Alan Ruck’s) discomfort around Carter. But Carter and “Spin City” were great for exposing those stereotypes for what they are: Completely dumb.
The other four, to varying degrees, have done the same to defy gay stereotypes. Ryan Murphy should take some notes.
Michael Boatman as Carter Sebastian Heywood in “Spin City”
Jesse Tyler Fergusion as Mitchell Pritchett in “Modern Family”
Oscar Nunez as Oscar Martinez in “The Office”
Michael C. Hall as David Fisher in “Six Feet Under”
John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness in “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood”