Let's Get Real About LGBT Issues

06/28/2010 12:38 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I found the controversy created last month by Ramin Setoodeh's article "Straight Jacket" in Newsweek to be quite fascinating. But it's frustrating to see this important discussion reduced to political talking points when it has the potential to fuel deeper and more authentic conversations about homosexuality--not just in the entertainment industry, but in our culture in general.

In his article, Ramin shares his critical assessment of actor Sean Hayes' portrayal of Chuck in the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises. Sean, from the hit comedy TV show Will and Grace, recently came out of the closet and publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, but his character in the Broadway show is straight. Ramin writes: "It's weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, as if he's trying to hide something, which of course he is."

He goes on to make the larger point that there seems to be a double standard in Hollywood and in the entertainment industry as a whole--straight actors can play gay roles and are often rewarded for it (for example, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his role as a gay man with AIDS in the film Philadelphia 16 years ago), but gay actors have a tough time landing straight roles (especially starring ones). When they do, they aren't taken seriously because, Ramin says, people can't get beyond the fact that they're gay in real life.

He ends his article by writing: "If an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet tomorrow, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? It's hard to say. Or maybe not. Doesn't it mean something that no openly gay actor like that exists?"

As soon as the article appeared in the May 10, 2010, issue of Newsweek, the blogosphere and the media were ablaze with posts, interviews and commentary about how homophobic and offensive it was. Kristin Chenoweth, Sean's co-star and female love interest in Promises, Promises, wrote a passionate response to Ramin's piece, praising Sean's performance, expressing disappointment with Ramin for writing it and with Newsweek for publishing it, and defending the rights of gay actors to play any kind of roles they want.

Kristin, a longtime and vocal supporter of equal rights for gays and lesbians, wrote: "This article offends me because I am a human being, a woman and a Christian. For example, there was a time when Jewish actors had to change their names because anti-Semites thought no Jew could convincingly play Gentile."

I'm glad that Ramin wrote the article, that Kristin responded and that it has been debated in the media, even though I believe it's has been reduced to superficial talking points, quoted out of context and addressed on the surface in many cases. I'm glad because this whole thing speaks to a larger issue in our culture, and specifically in the media, which is that we are not really having meaningful, vulnerable and real conversations about homosexuality. At least us straight folks aren't.

Instead, most of us have already picked our sides on issues like this. Whenever someone says or does something that contradicts what we think or believe (or what those on our sides think or believe), we react accordingly. That's what I did when I initially heard about Ramin's article. I felt exactly like Kristin--I was offended by it and thought it was incredibly homophobic.

But then I actually read Ramin's article myself. After reading it--along with his very thoughtful follow-up response to the controversy--and watching an interview he did on MSNBC, I don't think it was actually his intention to argue that gay actors can't play straight roles. Instead, I think it was to comment on this issue in a straightforward way, and in doing so, share a perspective that, while not so popular, is at least honest and promotes discussion.

Like most important things in life, it would be nice if this were a simple, cut-and-dried issue, but it's not. Even for someone like me--a straight, white, 36-year-old man who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been close to and around gay people since childhood and has passionately defended and supported the rights of gays and lesbians for much of my life--there are still times and situations in my life when I notice my own homophobic tendencies.

Whenever I find myself subversively judging someone else or separating myself from others based on sexuality, it isn't coming from a place within me that thinks they're bad, wrong or evil--it's simply that they're different than me, it can be hard for me to relate to them and with something as fundamental, visceral and primal as sexual desire and orientation and it can often be hard to comprehend or understand someone who doesn't have the same natural desire that I do.

This isn't something I'm proud of, that I find easy to admit and write about here or that is common to hear people talk about publicly. However, we all have a complexity of thoughts and feelings within us, some of which even contradict one another. So if we're going to begin to make real progress in our culture as it relates to sexual orientation equality, we have to start getting even more real about how we feel personally and do what we can to understand how others feel.

What if we felt more comfortable to share our true thoughts and feelings more openly? What if the discussions that took place about homosexuality in the media, and more importantly in our lives, had a deeper sense of authenticity to them?

The truth is that, for most of us who aren't gay, this isn't something we have to deal with on a daily basis. However, I think we all have a stake in this, no matter whether we're gay or straight. And, I think it's important that we keep engaging in this discussion, but that we do so with a sense of humility, vulnerability and compassion for ourselves and each other. This is a touchy and complex subject on many levels. It feels scary for me to write this article and put myself out there like this. But, at the same time, I think it's an important conversation, and I want to engage in it as authentically as I can.

The controversy gives us an opportunity to take a deeper look at how we think, feel and relate to homosexuality. And, if we're willing to go deep and get real about it, on both and personal and cultural level, I think we can have a major shift. My hope is that this shift involves more than gay actors simply getting opportunities to play great straight roles in movies, TV shows and theater productions without being judged, but also that, as a culture and a world, we're able to create a discussion that will help eliminate a great deal of the pain and suffering that has existed for gay people for far too long.

Mike Robbins is a sought-after motivational keynote speaker, coach, and the bestselling author of Focus on the Good Stuff (Wiley) and Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken (Wiley). More info -