Sean Hannity's meltdown about Sean Penn's fictional same-sex Oscar night kiss is absurd if only because, as GLAAD points out, there were many more heterosexual kisses just in that one show. More perniciously, though, it is absurd because Hollywood remains one of the country's most conservative institutions for gay people. At a time when, say, the Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee is an openly gay man, there are barely any openly gay actors of note. Yes, it's great that Penn kisses James Franco. Yes, it's nice that untold numbers of agents, studio executives, costume designers, producers, directors and assorted movie industry workers are openly gay. And, yes it's even nicer that Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow have top-ranked TV shows in their categories (wither the boys? but that's another story). It would be yet nicer, though, if one could name more than, perhaps, one openly gay movie star.
It is a measure of Hollywood's insecurity that we are probably months away from it being more acceptable to be a gay soldier than to be a gay actor. How did that happen? And how is it that we have been discussing this very same issue for decades, and yet find ourselves in about the same place as we were circa 1950 when Rock Hudson's agent commanded: "No two men can live together and have a career in Hollywood. It is not allowed. You'll ruin it all if you live with this other man." Apparently, it is still not allowed in 2009: one would be hard-pressed to think of a top male actor living with another man. Presumably, this is the same for women, although Jodie Foster did finally come busting out of that closet and, believe it or not, she still has a career (which is sadly more than can be said for many of her ostensibly straight female contemporaries).
Even the music industry has evolved dramatically, although the current wave of ambiguity and androgyny seems timed for the business's usual cycle: glam rockers such as David Bowie in the early 1970s, The Flock of Seagulls et al in the 1980s, boy bands in the 1990s, and now MGMT and Pete Wentz. Nonetheless, there has been progress: it was not quite stunning when Elton John, George Michael and Michael Stipe finally revealed their homosexuality in the last 15 years or so, but it was still an important step, and one that no actor of equal prominence has taken while still working, except for Foster. Even Clay Aiken overcame a strictly Christian upbringing to finally come out last year, as a "gay dad," again not exactly a shocker, but a significant move forward for a multi-platinum artist.
This leaves Hollywood competing with professional team sports as the last bastion of entertainment homophobia, not great company, going by the autobiography of openly gay former NBA player John Amaechi. With Hollywood, the situation is especially frustrating, as it is hidden behind a veneer of gay-friendliness (witness The Kiss on Oscar night). In reality, there appears to be a complex, well-oiled machine focused on keeping gay actors in sham opposite-sex marriages or in eternal bachelorhood. Except, that is, for a few male court jesters so flamboyant that even the magic of Hollywood cannot remake them into its image of heterosexuality. Or, of course, it could all simply be the inevitable result of a risk-averse industry's herd mentality and reliance on conventional wisdom. After all, this is a business in which it was assumed for years, and often still is, that African-American stars do weakly overseas, despite the fact that Will Smith has comfortably outranked all other actors as a worldwide box office attraction for years.
It is extraordinary that at a time when gay people are gaining the right to marry, state by state and country by country, Hollywood remains so essentially fearful for (or is it of?) its gay actors. This anxiety so deeply ensconced in the industry's DNA historically goes well beyond its attitude towards the possibility of openly gay actors. In an industry founded by Jewish immigrants, says writer Gene Lichtenstein, the America projected in films "was a glorified land of promise and happy endings, of small-town family life brimming with virtue and filled with a mythic Western past. And it contained no Jews." In a bit of a twilight zone twist on that attitude, modern Hollywood films do occasionally include gay characters, but we are lead to believe that it is real life that does not contain gay actors.
At a stretch, Hollywood executives will piously repeat that it is up to individuals to make the "difficult" choice to come out, and the industry will bear down with every ounce of its weight on the merest suggestion that an actor may be gay. This leads to the absurd situation where gay fans are portrayed as villainous or silly in their attempts to figure out whether an actor is gay (they will inevitably be lectured that every attractive person is not gay.) The PR machine has become more sophisticated than when an actor's publicist would respond with anger at the "slur" directed towards her client. The standard line now is: "If I were gay, of course I would say so, there is nothing wrong with it, blah, blah." The stupidity of such a statement cannot be overemphasized: if in fact there are no top out actors, then by definition there is a problem with being out and, no, of course none of these actors would say they are gay. Unless, of course, we assume that all actors are straight and that is precisely what Hollywood wants us to believe: big box-office acting draws are a kumbaya gay-friendly group of straight people. Some of them are even flattered at the attention from their gay fans, but no, they are emphatically not gay themselves.
It is ironic that Hannity should focus his homophobic wrath on Hollywood when, in many ways, it should be his friend: with some rare exceptions (Milk, Brokeback Mountain), gay people in Hollywood films remain a deeply asexual bunch of best friends, flamboyant uncles, and butch single cops, with very little to offend Hannity's hothouse flower of a crew at Fox News. And, in Hollywood real life, gay people, or at least gay actors, simply don't exist. What could be better than that for Hannity? He would be much better off going back to assaulting Congressman Barney Frank, the aforementioned Committee Chairman, a homosexual and a liberal, and also a far more interesting gay icon than Hollywood could ever muster.