Jonathan Knight of New Kids on the Block is the latest celebrity to come out as gay. Sort of.
I don’t mean he’s sort of gay. Rather, he sort of came out. In his own words, he was already out and has been for twenty years - he’s just never talked about it publicly. In a note on the NKOTB fan site, Knight said, “I have lived my life very openly and have never hidden the fact that I am gay!” This explains the confusion when former pop star Tiffany casually referenced his sexuality on a talk show, thinking that the whole world already knew something that was previously only a confirmed certainty within Knight’s social circle.
Of course, until the recent NKOTB comeback, Knight was out of the spotlight; he was working as a real estate developer in Massachusetts. It’s easier to keep your private life private when no-one is looking in your direction. Knight is not a celebrity who came out as gay, but a gay man who came out as a celebrity.
Even so, Knight is not unique. It used to be that if you were famous and gay, you kept your sexuality a secret, and any questions about your love life were answered with lies. ’50s teen idol Tab Hunter ‘dated’ Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds at the studios’ arrangement so that stories about his homosexuality would not destroy his career, and most gay actors since have followed the same course.
In more recent years a second option emerged; gay celebrities could come out on the cover of People magazine (or similar) and have their love lives reported on the same as any other public figure. Stephen Fry used to be an outlier; now we have Neil Patrick Harris acknowledging his husband and kids at an awards show. These celebrities need neither lie nor evade.
Now, in addition to those in the closet and those bursting out of it, we are seeing the emergence of a two new types of gay celebrity. The first is those who, like Knight, neither deny nor proclaim their sexuality. White Collar star Matthew Bomer seems to be a fine example of the type. He is often photograped wearing a wedding ring, but both he and his employers deflect any questions about his sexuality without issuing denials. Says Bomer; “the other people in my life didn’t necessarily choose to be in the spotlight.” And echoing Jonathan Knight, he adds, “Anyone who knows me, knows me”.
Bomer is not alone. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s sexuality has long been an open secret. Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto has reportedly refused to get himself a fake girlfriend. British actor Ben Wishaw belongs to the ‘I don’t like labels’ school, telling one interviewer, “I’d prefer to let the work do the speaking” - though he did not correct another interviewer who suggested that he was straight.
Journalists now face an interesting new challenge in deciding how to talk about these people, who are neither in the closet nor proclaiming themselves on tabloid covers. Straight people do not have to declare themselves straight in order to be written about as straight. So is it outing to talk about a gay person in the same way? Can the papers describe Anderson Cooper’s boyfriend as his boyfriend? (One newspaper recently upgraded the man in question from ‘friend’ to ‘companion’.) If the common view is that same-sex relationships are neither shameful nor abnormal, newspapers should be able to talk about Cooper’s boyfriend or Bomer’s husband without the authorisation of an ‘I am gay’ headline. If we accept that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, there can be no such thing as ‘outing’ for anyone who has come to terms with their own identity.
There is value in the coming out story. Every time someone like Ricky Martin adds his name to the ranks of the out and the proud, it changes the world a little bit for the better, and makes life a little easier for the next generation. Yet there may be even more value in not having a coming out story, if we can treat gay celebrities and their relationships as normally as everyone else’s. If they want to keep their private life private, that should be an option regardless of sexuality - but the fact of one’s sexuality should not be treated as one’s ‘private life’, because that perpetuates the idea that homosexuality is shameful. Celebrities who want to keep their partners and kids out of the spotlight to not pretend that their partners and kids do not exist.
So, ‘privately out, publicly silent’ is the new, third type of gay celebrity. The fourth is much bolder; the celebrity who has always been out.
Adam Lambert almost fits into this category. He avoided saying what everyone already knew for much longer than made sense, but he never hid who he was. Glee’s Chris Colfer and X-Factor’s Joe McElderry just about fit; they did have to ‘come out’, but teenagers get a lot more leeway; they have to first come out to themselves. But Britain’s Russell Tovey belongs firmly in the ‘always out’ camp - he acknowledged his sexuality the first time the question was asked. Soap actor Scott Evans (above) was outed as ‘Chris Evans’s gay brother’ before anyone saw him as an actor in his own right, and he insists he would never have hidden who he was. Swimmer Matthew Mitcham, singer Jake Shears, and actor Cheyenne Jackson are all as far from the closet as a person can be.
Yet these are not household names. Lambert’s fame was manufactured by a reality show. Colfer enjoys a rare synergy of bringing the right talents to the right story at the right time. None of these people have established a replicable path to success for an openly gay performer or athlete.
We have not yet established just how accepting and tolerant the majority audience is prepared to be, though I’m sure that today is better than yesterday. It may take a few of those ‘out from the start’ celebrities to break into the big time before some of those ‘out in my own life’ guys are courageous enough to walk down a red carpet with their partner on their arm.