03/02/2012 02:18 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

From the Teletubbies to Clooney: The Fine Art of the Gay Denial

The gay denial is turning into quite the art form. Let's watch its progression over the years.

Exhibit 1: The 'Sue-Someone's-Pants-Off' Denial

Calling a film star gay can be risky business. Tom Cruise launched two lawsuits in the space of one month back in 2001 to squelch those pesky gay rumours. The first was after an "erotic wrestler" told a French magazine he was the reason for Cruise's split from Nicole Kidman. Cruise's lawyer told The Guardian, "[Cruise] is a great respecter of homosexual rights, but he's not gay, and he's ready to prove this in court. ... Tom is tired of it and it hurts his children. It's something that will be there forever. And damn it, he's going to stop it." He won a $10 million judgement there.

The second one came after Mike Davis, an L.A.-based publisher, said he had video evidence of another of Cruise's gay affairs. Wham! Cruise sued Davis for $100 million. Davis retracted the story, saying Cruise is "not, and never has been, homosexual and has never had a homosexual affair." No word on what happened to that video.

The other poster boy in this category is of course Cruise's fellow Scientologist John Travolta. He threatened to sue Gawker because it published steamy details about Travolta's alleged exploits in a Los Angeles men's sauna. Even worse for poor Travolta, the interior designer who spilled the beans claimed that he was a bottom.

Exhibit 2: The 'Nothing-Wrong-With-Being-Gay-But-I-Am-Not' Denial

Pop singer Joe Jonas has been unable to shake off those gay rumours, despite high-profile relationships with famous women like Taylor Swift, Ashley Greene, and Demi Lovato. Or perhaps the rumours swirl because of those high-profile, PR-friendly link-ups. (It sounds a little too studio-managed Rock Hudson-ish.) "There's nothing wrong with being gay, but I'm not," Jonas told Details magazine.

Oprah has had to battle the lesbian rumour for years. "I'm not even kind of a lesbian," she told Barbra Walters. "And the reason why it irritates me is because it means that somebody must think I'm lying. That's number one. Number two: why would you want to hide it?"

(Note that Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 2 are not mutually exclusive. They can often be combined into a single category. For example, Hulk Hogan, big boy of wrestling, was accused by his ex-wife of bedroom romps with his singlet buddy Brutus Beefcake. Yes, Hulk Hogan and Brutus Beefcake -- now that's erotic wrestling! Hogan sued his ex-wife and said, "[If] I was a homosexual I would embrace it. It's just so crazy to hear, so I have a real problem with it.")

The problem with Exhibits 1 and 2 in our more politically correct times is that the more you protest that there is nothing wrong with it, the more you imply that there is something wrong with it, that being called gay is lawsuit-worthy. But now comes George Clooney with Exhibit 3. Watch and learn.

Exhibit 3: The Non-Denial Denial.

First there was a website that proclaimed that Clooney was "gay, gay, gay." Clooney's response: "No. I'm gay, gay. The third gay -- that was pushing it." Now The Advocate has asked him about it again. "I'm not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing," he told the magazine. "My private life is private, and I'm very happy in it. Who does it hurt if someone thinks I'm gay?" At no point does he come out and say he is not gay. Neither does he say he is, or that he might possibly be. Well played, sir. A master stroke indeed.

Of course, this epidemic of denials is the flip side of another trend: this epidemic of gay-spotting in showbiz, our endless fascination with the bedroom lives of our celebrities. Check the National Enquirer's cover story about who's gay in Hollywood. Yes, yes, everyone is in there, from Zac Efron (too much makeup) to Hugh Jackman (he loves to sing and dance).

Whether it's Hollywood or Bollywood, everyone is gay. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who is getting it on with [fill-in-the-blank] Khan. It could be another star, a director, a secretary, or a physical trainer. Ask your source how he knows all this, and he will roll his eyes and say, "But darling, everyone knows."

It's gotten so bad that you don't even have to have bona fide sexual organs to have your sexual orientation questioned in the media. Tinky Winky, that purple Teletubby with a handbag and a triangular aerial on his head, came under attack for being gay. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the astute gay-spotter that he is, saw a clear gay agenda there: "He is purple -- the gay-pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle -- the gay-pride symbol." Gay. Gay.

Sesame Street muppets Bert and Ernie have been battling those gay rumours for years. They are roommates. They sing silly songs. One is obsessed about his rubber ducky. Gay. Gay. Gay. Back in 1993, the Children's Television Workshop was forced to issue this press release: "Bert and Ernie, who've been on Sesame Street for 25 years, do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans." Too bad; they would have been great role models for the marriage equality debate: a stable, decades-long gay partnership.

Being gay was once the love that dared not speak its name. It was taboo and illicit and subversive. Now it's peeping into a purple Teletubby's handbag! It makes one almost nostalgic for the golden days of the closet, when the stars were proper by day and insatiable by night, and scandals meant something. Read 88-year-old Scotty Bower's memoir about being a gigolo and sex fixer for the stars back in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He says he had sex with Spencer Tracy while procuring women for Tracy's beloved Katharine Hepburn ("Do you think you can find a nice, young, dark-haired girl for me? Someone that's not too heavily made up?"). He claims to have done threesomes with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. He says Edward VIII was gay and that the woman for whom he abdicated the throne was a lesbian. But no one is suing Scotty Bowers. No one is denying any of his stories, because almost everyone involved is dead. "The truth can't hurt them anymore," Bowers told The New York Times.

"Scotty doesn't lie -- the stars sometimes do," Gore Vidal writes in a blurb for the book. In this age of gay claims and gay denials, that's a good thing to remember.

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