Can Hollywood be seen as a beacon of enlightenment when it comes to gay matters? The Oscars was recently hosted for the second time by Ellen DeGeneres, an openly gay woman. LGBT characters routinely appear in movies and an increasing number of actors are coming out of the closet. Next weekend America’s gay media advocacy organisation − GLAAD − will be holding its 25th Annual Media Awards in Los Angeles bestowing its seal of approval on individuals and productions for the many images they have provided of the LGBT community.
Most would agree that at first sight, screen depictions of gay people, and the narratives in which they feature, are more positive than ever, especially on US television.
“Twenty-five years ago I don’t think we would have seen the kind of representation we’re seeing today,” says GLAAD’s national spokesperson, actor Omar Sharif Jr, grandson of the acting legend. “We’re not all the way there yet, but we’ve made huge gains, and that’s something to be celebrated.”
But look closely, especially when it comes to mainstream Hollywood, and you’ll find the landscape isn’t that gay-friendly after all. Despite big names in American sport, music and broadcasting coming out of the closet, no major A-list Hollywood star has yet declared themselves to be gay.
That isn’t to say that all Hollywood actors have been quiet. Zachary Quinto, known to millions for playing Spock in the recent Star Trek movies, came out in 2011 − and Jodie Foster, in a speech at the Golden Globes last year, acknowledged: “I already did my coming out about a 1000 years ago.” On Valentine’s Day this year, at a LGBT event sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, actress Ellen Page declared she was gay adding: “I am tired of lying by omission.”
But so far no megastar of the stature that could carry a big Hollywood blockbuster or franchise has come forward to state that he− or she is gay.
“I can’t imagine why. I think it’s their own demons at this point, I really do. It’s silly,” says top Hollywood PR man Howard Bragman, who’s made a name for himself as a publicist who helps guide stars who want to come out.
Price to pay?
Not so long ago, when discrimination was more extreme, those actors who did come out would have suffered the penalty of lost work. There is still the view that a gay actor well known for playing the heterosexual romantic lead might no longer be able to find work in those roles if he revealed he was gay.
Casting director Tammara Billik, a board member of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, believes it could present female fans with a difficult challenge: “I think there is still that hurdle to climb over, envisioning their heartthrob on screen kissing a woman…and can they separate that from their heartthrob in his personal life kissing a man?” she says.
But Billik believes there will be change. She is of the opinion that there are several A-list stars working in Hollywood today who are gay − but in the closet.
She says: “There are probably three or four leading guys out there that are A-listers that are gay in my guess. I think it’s going to take that one person who people don’t think is gay to come out. I think once that A-lister comes out more will follow.”
But there are no guarantees that the studios would embrace a newly proclaimed, openly gay megastar and slot them into a high-profile role. Hollywood is extremely risk-averse − trying to maximize its revenues by reaching the biggest possible audience − and executives may take the view that casting a gay star would alienate moviegoers especially in conservative markets overseas.
For some in the LGBT community, having a major star come out is seen as vital because of the impact it could have on isolated gay teens who may be struggling with their sexual identity. Tammara Billick says: “If a big A-list star came out he would show teenage girls and boys it’s ok to be gay, and not to be afraid and that would be an amazing statement to make.” It can of course be countered that a star, however big, who has hidden in the closet for many years may not be such a positive role model after all.
Knowledge is power
But publicist Howard Bragman, who’s gay himself, agrees that having a star coming out can be a very effective way to break down anti-gay prejudice and ignorance.“I’ve seen the research,” he says, “and I know the single biggest factor that people judge and change their minds about LGBT issues are if they know someone who is gay − and when a star comes out they do know someone who is gay. It changes their level of understanding. That’s why I’ve helped so many people come out.”
Last year GLAAD published its Studio Responsibility Index, which tracked the content of the films released by Hollywood’s six largest film studios in 2012. Out of 101 films released, only 14 of them had a character identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual and sometimes they were on screen for little more than just a few seconds. None of the films had a transgender character.
US television is radically different with whole TV shows built around gay characters. So why is there a discrepancy when it comes to mainstream cinema?
Some gay media activists put the blame on studio executives whose views they claim are behind the times.
“I think these are long entrenched ideas that they’re just having a hard time shaking,” says Matt Kane, GLAAD’s Associate Director of Entertainment Media. He hopes the film studios can learn from the TV industry. “It’s ticket sales in films and it’s ratings in television − and we’ve certainly seen that a huge number of the most highly-rated shows on television are extremely inclusive of LGBT characters and story lines.”
Omar Sharif Jr also thinks Hollywood’s concerns over not wanting to alienate foreign markets could be holding back the representation of gays in studio movies. “A lot of LGBT characters would be censored by the government censors,” he says, “so I think the studios are keeping that in mind. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”
The big six studios are hardly paragons of innovation, originality and inspiration. But generally speaking they are thought of as being politically liberal and progressive. That’s why the degree to which they’ve excluded LGBT characters from their films has struck some media watchdogs as startling. “What we found by and large is that we are largely invisible in Hollywood film,” says Matt Kane at GLAAD. There are many in the LGBT community who are determined to see that change. With so many gains in the battle to win marriage equality there’s a sense of optimism among gay media advocates that the Hollywood studios will soon realise they’re behind the times − and that to retain and develop audiences around the world they need more inclusive storytelling.