Why I Didn’t Out John Mahoney As Gay

"It was easy when you couldn't talk about it. Now it's all you talk about."

When news of John Mahoney’s death made the rounds this week, I was saddened.

Frasier was one of the few shows my parents and I watched together, a rare instance of family unity. I also remembered him fondly in Moonstruck, Say Anything…, and of course, The Broken Hearts Club.

But I was more saddened by the fact that he never felt comfortable being public about his sexuality. I’d heard plenty of times that Mahoney was gay but not officially out: Sometimes the story was he had a partner. Other times, he lived a solitary life.

On Tuesday night I scoured the Internet looking for on-the-record references to Mahoney’s sexuality so I could write an obit that didn’t feel awkward or include a disastrous line like “lifelong bachelor” or “he never married or had kids.”

But no such account materialized.

Not from Dan Butler or David Hyde Pierce, two gay men who knew Mahoney from working together on Frasier. Not from Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, where Mahoney performed for years. What I did find were references to Mahoney as violently protective of his privacy. A story was passed along to me that he once stopped talking to a friend in the 1980s for divulging he was gay.

I have keen gaydar and an good ear for celebrity gossip. Did I think John Mahoney was gay? Sure. Did I have proof enough to put it in print? No. (And, for the record, I still don’t: He may have been a lifelong bachelor after all.)

Ron Galella/WireImage

But in the wake of his death, discussion of Mahoney’s acting prowess or humanity were quickly overshadowed by chatter about his sexuality.

It reminded of the speech his character, Jack, gives in The Broken Hearts Club:

Sometimes I wonder what you boys would do if you weren’t gay. You’d have no identity. It was easy when you couldn’t talk about it. Now it’s all you talk about. You talk about it so much that you forget about all the other things that you are.”

Then the social media conversation switched to whether he was out or not. On my feed, friends were insisting they’d read articles where he spoke openly about his sexuality, or swore they saw him at gay bars. Others were angry—furious—that the media was closeting Mahoney posthumously. (Nevermind that it appeared it was Mahoney doing the closeting.)

That a creative artist, a kind-hearted man by all accounts, had died of throat cancer in a hospice, was forgotten.

There was a time you could count the number of gay actors on one hand. Then it was two hands. Now we have a host of LGBT performers who aren’t violently private about their identities—they’re young and old; male, female, and nonbinary.

Seeing yourself represented in the media is wonderful thing, but the reality is we didn’t need John Mahoney. Would anyone’s life have been saved knowing that a 77-year-old Anglo-American was (uncomfortably) gay? Is that the role model we want to show the next generation?

Joey Foley/Getty Images

And he didn’t want us, either. I know that sound cruel, but it’s really more tragic. We can’t posthumously give him the courage he couldn’t find. Or change the truth of his life because it suits our needs.

I’m not attacking him—he came of age at a different time, and by the time it was (relatively) safe for a Hollywood character actor to come out, he may have felt there was no point.

When outing started in the 1980s, it was a political action—a way to defang closeted anti-LGBT power brokers, to show a culture that rejected us we were a part of it all along. But things have changed so much so fast. Maybe how we look at celebrities and historical figures needs to change, too. It’s not 1993 anymore. We’re not grasping at names to prove to the straight world we’re not freaks.

If someone doesn’t want to be claimed, maybe we just don’t claim them.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.