Why We Should Stop Overpraising Celebrities Who Come Out Mid-Career

Instead, let's better recognize the bravery of those who've been out and famous all along.

A friend of mine recently shared on Facebook a speculative gossip article about a hunky male actor who’s about to come out as gay. In addition to the speculations as to whether it was Hugh, George, Tom, Jake, or a bevvy of other men who’ve instilled hope in our gay chests, there were the usual “about time” comments and advanced-boyfriend requests.

Summer of Stonewall notwithstanding, I couldn’t get into the revelry of the moment because I grew angry at the past. As someone whose career been defined by my gayness, I no longer want to give extra attention to people who rise to exceptional heights as straight, come out, and then get more credit for their bravery. Hell, Anderson Cooper basically got an award for the admission.

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I don’t believe in outing, except if the person in question is anti-gay, à la Aaron Schock (who’s already poised for a shot of beefcake redemption, and you know that PR apology is in full swing) and I’m not the one to decide when is the most appropriate time for a person to admit they’re queer. I also know it is now—and has always been—a struggle to open up to a hostile world, one that discriminates and hates LGBTQ people on a daily basis.

But when I think of the men and women who’ve made a name for themselves first, then came out after the fact—Ricky Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, David Hyde Pierce, Jodie Foster, Sean Hayes, Barry Manilow, Shep Smith, Colton Haynes, Kristen Stewart, Don Lemon…the list is endless—I’m reminded of all the benefits they received, at least professionally, while those who were out from the beginning were shunned and blacklisted, often dismissed or simply ignored.

Remember how out actor Rupert Everett’s career nose-dived after he played a gay man in the smash hit My Best Friend’s Wedding? Recall the lack of commercial endorsements Greg Louganis received after he became the greatest diver in the world while living with his male manager?

While it’s probable that many of the after-fame gays have had career setbacks post-coming out (DeGeneres didn’t work for a long stretch after her on-air-real-life lesbian admittance), it’s also possible that none of them would have achieved success in the first place if they’d been introduced to the world as queer. We’re still in that place, and we often forget the harsh reality of recognition when we welcome people to the triangle club.

I can’t, and won’t, blame anybody for making their own choices. On the contrary, I respect the business savvy and hard work of pretending to be straight—and I can’t say that if I’d ever been asked to stay in the closet for professional gain, I would have said no. (I was once advised by an openly gay book publisher to go back into the closet, but Google search engines pretty much made that option null and void.)

But in this summer of pride, it’s imperative that we remind ourselves of the prevailing homophobia, internalized as well as public, that keeps so many people from being true to themselves and the world, and, more importantly, honor the men and women who had the courage to be out and loud from the get-go. You don’t know a lot of their names, but, God, am I respecting Boy George these days. And kudos to actors like Matt Bomer, who was easily set to become the next Warren Beatty, yet set aside immediate career gratification to be true to himself.

Moreover, I hope the new generation of stars—folks like Hayley Kiyoko, Mykki Blanco, Sam Smith, and many others—continue to flourish in their careers as openly queer artists, and inspire others to do the same.

Back when I was a struggling actor in the ’80s, all of my gay friends and acquaintances, at least the ones who were working in leading roles, were closeted. Two of them still are (both former soap performers); it’s just that, in their late 50s no one bothers to ask them about sexual preference anymore. While I was never taken seriously as anything but a character actor, the first agent I interviewed with reprimanded me for crossing my legs—“they watch for that,” he snapped. He was openly gay but, safely, on the other side of the camera.

When I went to New England summer stock in the summer of ’85, I was introduced to my first boyfriend, Joe, and my first realization that even the “liberal theater world” could be homophobic AF. I was just starting out, but Joe was strikingly handsome and talented and immediately recruited for a role on the main stage opposite Teri Garr and Blythe Danner. After word got out of our relationship, I was told by an acting instructor to “tone it down.” Joe never got another role onstage—nor did he get asked back to the theater by the notoriously anti-gay casting director.

Fellow alumni Allison Janney and Peri Gilpin were on their way to the big time, while Joe, who never listened to me when I told him we shouldn’t hold hands in front of our peers—he had no interest in the game he wouldn’t have to play had he been straight—went back to New York deflated. Our relationship started to sour, and I believe it was in huge part because he never quite recovered from that summer’s letdown. He quit acting altogether just a few years later.

This was the same theater company where two esteemed, closeted actors hit on me pretty much every night, one of whom was about to become a major TV sitcom star, the other was already a revered Broadway veteran who took his silence to his grave. I cried when I read his obit, but not for purely sentimental reasons.

So if you’re thinking we’re all good now and coming out is no big deal, no one cares if you’re queer, just go back a generation or so, and understand that hate is still trickling down. The list of closeted celebrities from the ‘80s and before could fill a book or two—and has.

By the time I got my first book deal for a gay wedding guide in 2003, the traditional bridal magazine I was working for tried to prevent reporters from speaking to me—because God forbid it should be revealed that a gay man was writing about weddings! What are the odds? When reporters got through to me anyway, their PR woman approached me and asked what personal anecdotes I might reveal. I told her it was none of her business. I guess I was never much good at playing that game either.

All the gay writers I know are just that—“gay” writers. We get our own now-proverbial shelf, all the way back in the store, to the right, around the corner, past the real authors, past the legitimate reads. Yes, it’s changing, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I could tell someone in charge that my mainstream story had gay characters as leads without rolled eyes and non-returned calls and emails. And if trends change again, as is common in political climates, we could easily be pushed back once more. Straight writers and plots don’t really have downswings.

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Writer James Baldwin who was never not out.

So, no, I don’t blame any of you for staying in the closet, in whatever profession your thrive, until it was more expedient not to. And if you’re still there now, I hope the sacrifice is worth it. But it hurts because of the never-redeemed quiet others before you endured and are still enduring.

My always-open friends in writing, music, acting, some doctors and lawyers and politicians, those I’ve known for decades and those I’m getting to know now, are my gay heroes, my gay icons, the trailblazers who put self before society. Thank you Ari, David, Lou, Phil—the best actor I’ve ever met and who died of AIDS while pursuing a non-closeted theater career way back in 1985. And so many more I can’t name or who’ve slipped from my mind the way their careers slipped out from underneath them.

Time’s up, to borrow an expression from a passionate movement, and if in 2019—with Trump campaigning for reelections, hate crimes on the rise, and pastors continually preaching to kill queer people—you’re still hiding behind yourself in hopes you might just get that next great job, I won’t host a party when your rainbow flag finally flies. It’s nothing personal; it’s simply this: If you don’t step out of that door now, you might end up living in a world where you have to keep the locks shut forever.

David Toussaint is the author of four books and has been a professional journalist since the age of 15.