Anytime an established actor comes out of the closet, he should be applauded. It's a brave thing to do in Hollywood. Not only is he confronting the prejudices of Middle America, but chances are he's also disappointing his resistant agent, facing the prejudices of homophobic producers and casting directors, and maybe even risking financial ruin. It takes guts.
That said, I reserve my biggest admiration for actors who were never in the closet to begin with. To me, those are the true heroes. As difficult as the acting profession is, starting out with no secrets is truly an act of courage.
Many gay actors are closeted. And it's not always the result of self-loathing or external homophobia. When young actors start out, most are determined -- nay, desperate -- to be what the powers that be want, not who they really are. They want to fit in. (Why else would so many of them be wearing wool caps in a town that rarely dips below 65 degrees Fahrenheit?) They train away their accents, transform themselves at the gym, even get their ears nipped or noses done.
Alas, they are too inexperienced to realize that what counts is not what makes you blend in but what makes you stand out.
I'm not advocating showing up at auditions in a T-shirt that reads, "Why, yes, I am!" You don't have to attend that film premiere carrying a picket sign. But you do have to be brave enough, when asked, to answer the question honestly. Because if you refuse to answer the question, you've answered the question. After all, do you know any straight men who hesitate to declare their love for women? I don't. (Remember Ricky Martin's awkward interview with Barbara Walters? His refusal to answer the question was confirmation to most, and many mocked him for his timidity. It took years for his career to recover.)
I've worked with closeted actors, and the experience is exasperating, to say the least. It's not like they fool anyone with the genderless pronouns and (if they are playing gay) the declarations that they are "nothing at all like the character."
They'll tell you they "don't want to be labeled." That's an admirable goal. The world would be a lovely place if people didn't label each other. And I hope to live long enough to see that world. But we aren't there yet.
In my opinion, the only way we'll do away with labels, ironically, is to first label every single thing. Only when the easily titillated see that we are everywhere, that we come in all sizes, colors and variations, and that most of us are just as boring as they are, will they tire of playing "Who's gay?" That's why coming out is so important.
"I never said I was a role model" is another retort I've heard from defensive closeted actors. Another cop-out, if you ask me.
Like it or not, actors have a responsibility beyond ourselves. Most of us become actors because we want to represent the underrepresented. I've always thought being an actor is similar to being an elected official. (For example, I am representing all the middle-aged, skinny, pencil-necked, gay geeks.)
Actors act, in large part, to promote understanding, to improve the human condition -- at least that's why the good ones do it! If you're only in it for fame, fortune and ego gratification, get out.
There are jobs where it makes good sense to keep your sexuality secret -- a small-town school teacher, for example, or a solider in the military. But show business, despite some of its old-school tendencies, is one of the most liberal industries on the planet. And it's getting better for out actors. Jim Parsons is the star of TV's top sitcom, for which he's won four Emmys. Zachary Quinto has a lead role in one of the biggest film franchises, where he not only gets big fight scenes but also wins "the girl." Neil Patrick Harris, Alan Cumming, Matt Bomer, Cheyenne Jackson. The list gets longer all the time.
Alas, despite the progress we have made in the battle for equal rights, we are far from finished. There are still too many young gay people growing up surrounded by hatred, and they need to see well-adjusted, successful gay people who thrive without fear. And there are too many ignorant bigots who also need to see us in all our diversity. Once they do, then maybe we really can do away with labels.
I will now stop preaching and allow Mr. Webster to have the final word:
Courage (noun): the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous; mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty
Despite being out since high school, Leon Acord has appeared in over 30 films and 25 stage productions. He currently stars in the very gay Web series Old Dogs & New Tricks, which he also created, writes and co-produces.