05/17/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

Why Gay Actors Going Public Matters


In this week's issue of Backstage Magazine, I interviewed Zachary Quinto, now onscreen reprising the role of Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness. Quinto was the opposite of most interview subjects; he wouldn't talk much about his project (or couldn't, knowing director J.J. Abrams' penchant for secrecy) but was more than happy to discuss his personal life -- most notably, his choice to come out as gay in a 2011 New York Magazine article. It's a year and a half later and Quinto says he doesn't believe his decision has affected his ability to land or play straight roles. He points to Star Trek as a perfect example. "I'm excited for this movie because it's happening after I came out," he says. "I have this giant tent-pole movie with an openly gay co-lead. It's exciting to me, and I want young people to be able to look at this film and see that being gay doesn't have to diminish or undermine one's masculinity and one's connection to what it is to be a man."

I have always maintained that it's the personal choice of someone in the public eye whether or not they want to discuss their sexuality. I won't criticize an actor who chooses not to discuss their personal life because I won't pretend like there aren't legitimate concerns about how it might affect their career. Yes, we've come a long way from the days of Harry Hamlin blaming playing gay in the 1983 movie Making Love for hurting his career -- one has to look only to recent Oscar winners like Tom Hanks and Sean Penn or point to the star-studded reading of Dustin Lance Black's marriage equality play 8 to see that playing gay isn't only acceptable, it's en vogue. But that's different from knowing an actor is gay in real life. And as much as I'd like to think we've moved beyond that, a visit to any Internet message board will quickly remind me that not everyone thinks as I do. (A recent jarring reminder occurred when a Twitter follower told me: "there is no pride in loving poo pushers and ass-lickers #antigay" -- I'm grateful for the #antigay hashtag, as they hadn't quite made their position clear.)

In the past, I have tried not to make too much of it when an actor chooses to come out. I've said it didn't matter, or that I didn't care about their personal life. Both are completely untrue statements. The latter is also hypocritical, as someone who devours every piece of tabloid gossip about which male-female stars are supposedly hooking up. It was only recently that I began to realize firsthand how meaningful such a choice could be.

There is a young man named Cory who I have known all his life, and he is now a teenager. He recently revealed to me he is gay, something I admit I had wondered about for a couple of years now. I was mostly surprised that this boy, still a child to me in so many ways, was so confident and assured about his sexuality at an age when no one -- gay, straight, asexual -- seems to be. Especially considering his very conservative family who has let it be known over the years, often in the most un-PC terms, that they don't approve of homosexuality.

And I believe that to some extent, the entertainment industry is to thank. For starters, the one show everyone in his family agrees upon is The Big Bang Theory. I remember Cory, then 11, asking if I had ever met Sheldon Cooper, the lead character played by openly gay actor Jim Parsons. Being a kid, he had only two questions -- was he nice and did he have a girlfriend? I informed Cory that indeed, Jim Parsons is one of the nicest guys around, and actually, he happens to have a boyfriend. There was a sharp intake of breath from his family as I watched Cory process this information. I could almost see the wheels turning as he put together that if his hero Sheldon Cooper was gay in real life, being gay couldn't be all that bad. That might sound simplistic, but isn't that how it begins? We fear the unfamiliar until we find it's already among us, in our living rooms every week.

Right now, America's favorite TV couple is probably Mitch and Cam from Modern Family. I am always amused when people find out that Eric Stonestreet, the actor who has won two Emmys for playing Cam, isn't gay in real life. I wonder if these people think Nathan Fillion is really a crime writer or the kids on Glee are anywhere near teenagers. The best part about this relationship is how far from perfect it is presented. They can be petty, they're often manipulative, they have stupid arguments -- you know, like any other couple. Which is something important for everyone to see, but especially a formative young mind like Cory.

Not long ago, the first Star Trek came out, and guess who was his favorite character? For a kid who worships the geeks of Big Bang, it will come as no surprise that the emotionally closed off, utterly logical Spock was the one he most identified with. Quinto might be the first actor he really became a fan of, reading articles on him and seeking out his other projects. (Not that I'm not endorsing allowing a pre-teen to watch American Horror Story, mind you.) In every one of his roles, Quinto is a powerful presence, every bit a man -- he's so ridiculously handsome, he kind of had to be a movie star. And when he came out, it had the exact effect he had hoped for -- it helped people like Cory see that being gay didn't have to effect how other people viewed your masculinity.

So as more and more actors have come out in recent years, it might seem that a choice like Quinto's would lose some of its power. It's actually quite the opposite. Every one who steps forward to add their voice reinforces that there is no shame, no fear in being gay. Openly gay actor Guillermo Diaz has built a career playing macho Alpha males, and now stars as the biggest badass on Scandal. Neil Patrick Harris proves audiences will accept a gay man as the biggest ladies' man on television on How I Met Your Mother.

I can offer nothing but gratitude to those who are willing to talk freely about their personal lives. To prove there is no stigma or shame in being gay. Because of them, a very special young man in my life may have an easier time with his life. And he knows he is not alone. He is surrounded by so many people like him. Some of them already his heroes. Some who may become heroes.

And to hear Quinto tell it, he has received nothing but positive feedback. "I have gotten to do amazing work before people knew that I was gay, and I've gotten to do amazing work since they've known," he says. "And I think the only difference I can really measure is the number of people that have come up to me and told me how much their lives have changed because I did that. So if people want to restrict my opportunities creatively, I don't want to have anything to do with those people anyway."

Disagree with me if you want. Just be sure you tag it #antigay. So we're clear.