07/26/2013 04:13 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Gayness and the Gandolfini Eulogies

When the actor Joseph R. Gannascoli, or "Joey G," as he is more widely known, phoned Howard Stern's SiriusXM Satellite Radio channel to discuss the recent death of James Gandolfini, I expected to hear a boilerplate summation of the late actor's achievements, as well as a few rote references to his erstwhile warmth and humility. Instead, Gannascoli told a disturbing story that turned on Gandolfini's alleged awareness of the dangers of "playing gay," of the sheer chagrin that can surround a straight actor contractually obliged to embody (or at least suggest) same-sex desire.

On The Sopranos Gannascoli portrayed Vito Spatafore, a captain in Tony's crew, who, by the series' sixth season, is shacking up with his secret boyfriend in the woods of northern New England, seemingly far beyond the retributive reach of the mob. But if Vito's investment in his "second life" is quixotic at best, then so is the hope that no upsetting stereotypes will attach themselves to the Gandolfini-themed peans, which, thus far, have expressed some alarming tendencies.

Take, for instance, Gannascoli's tale about a special Sopranos rehearsal, the first to hinge on his character's "gay storyline." In Gannascoli's telling, Gandolfini, the powerful star of this popular series, proudly announced his willingness to help crush the seed of Vito's homosexuality, should it start to rankle its thespian vessel. "When my character went, uh, gay," Gannascoli told Howard 101, "[Gandolfini] took me aside and said, 'Look, if you're not really comfortable with this -- because you know a lot of guys in Brooklyn, you have a lot of friends, and this could get kind of weird -- we can go talk to David [Chase, the Sopranos showrunner] and tell him that you're not comfortable doing it.'"

At the heart of this impolitic anecdote, which Gannascoli mobilized to illustrate the late Gandolfini's compassion, is a portrait of "gay panic," a fear of being sullied by the queerness of what in this case is a fictional character. What also emerges, and just as vividly, is the image of a star whose solicitousness seemingly extended only to his fellow straight men. I'm disposed to resist this image, partly because Gandolfini brought expansive empathy as well as cliché-shattering complexities to a stunt role (that of a gay hit man) in a stupid movie (The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts), but also because Gannascoli, given a limited platform from which to extemporize, was obviously cobbling together the meager remnants of a partial memory, in the hope of shaping some semblance of a story for Sirius listeners. After wincing at the man's words, I permitted myself to dismiss his upsetting account of a discriminatory Jimmie, a decision made easier by the torrent of denunciations that followed. Former co-stars were suddenly coming out of the woodwork to call Gannascoli an opportunist and worse, and within days I had forgotten about the man's misplaced plaudits.

And then Dick Cavett, in The New York Times, offered his own objectionable narrative, an obituary of sorts, in which Cavett recalls how lovably anti-gay Gandolfini could be. That self-consciously "cutesy" prejudice persists is no surprise; that the Times elects to endorse such a pain-inducing stance is, frankly, shocking. After all, this is the very same Times that has offered haughty op-eds about an all but demonic Paula Deen, that has squeezed every last bit of vitriol from her saga of Old-South stupidity. Justifiably scandalized by Deen's use of the "N" word, the Times apparently has no qualms about publishing the straight-identified Dick Cavett's two uses of the "F" word, reconstituted, in this case, as "faggy."

As with Deen's indiscretions, the offensiveness of Cavett's comments comes more from context than from language, more from a casually, even cheerfully, expressed prejudice than from a single, ugly word alone. Eulogizing Gandolfini, Cavett exploits an allegedly axiomatic separation between machismo and gayness, fondly recalling the time when his bearlike friend failed to lift his own tiny body (on account of some aikido techniques that Cavett had learned "from a sensei in Toyko" that made the little man seem exceedingly heavy). Later, according to Cavett, Gandolfini remarked upon the reputation that this unexpected failure had netted him, saying that male acquaintances were suddenly, tauntingly calling him "faggy," to which Cavett, as he reports in his piece, responded by semi-facetiously reassuring Gandolfini of the latter's lasting masculinity, much to the actor's apparent relief. It would seem that one of Cavett's tasks during Gandolfini's life, as when writing the eulogy that followed, was to rescue the star from any association with gayness, to appease -- and maybe even inspire -- his alleged desire to be seen as strictly straight.

Apart from political pique, the reason for my enraged response to all this nonsense is simple and selfish: I grew up on The Sopranos. It was as much a part of my puberty as Sesame Street was of my preadolescence. While this early exposure to an admittedly dark and audacious series might have inured me to insolence, I'm finding that it didn't. Cavett's prose still smarts; his little story with its spectral stock villain -- the prissy homosexual who isn't physically strong and whose reduced identity is used by "tough" men to demean their peers and define their own moral, social, and somatic superiority -- still makes my "faggy" hands form fists.

I feel as if I've been denied the opportunity to mourn Mr. Gandolfini in an uncomplicated way, without ever having to say, "Well, but he hated the gays." I'm a mere fan, a former Sopranos junkie, and as such I'd like to simply grieve the loss of a great actor. Instead, I have to think of the enduring, insidious bigotry that that actor may well have represented and that at least two memorials -- one spoken, the other written -- have now made impossible to ignore. Instead of a smart account of an iconic actor, we have Cavett's widely celebrated story about how much fun it evidently was to make the massive Gandolfini fear for his heterosexist, narrowly gendered identity.

I was reluctant to write this piece, because some part of me wants to reserve my writerly identity for more "positive" reports. But this week, in Manhattan's West Village, of all places, my boyfriend was bullied by a male passerby for wearing what the stranger disdainfully called "a woman's bag." As this example attests, Cavett's rather offensive attempt to introduce some levity into an otherwise somber blog post is just the Times-minted tip of a broader problem, one that can culminate in chilling real-life encounters.

Besides, there is a special desecration involved when any kind of obituary turns into a forum for confirming bigotry, particularly a bigotry that, on the evidence of The Mexican, had absolutely no bearing on Gandolfini's brilliant, beautiful work as an actor. It isn't simply that Cavett is, in his own jokey, septuagenarian way, maligning a man who has passed, because what purpose could possibly be served by suggesting the extent of a dead guy's anti-gay sentiments? It's that neither Cavett nor The New York Times seems aware of the problem of putting a strangely syrupy prejudice at the center of remembrance. There it remains, uncorrected and with "faggy" intact -- twice over! -- on the Times website: Cavett's retrograde take on a great actor's "friendly" homophobia.