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Reopening The Glass Closet

Adam Amel Rogers
Adam Amel Rogers is a Project Specialist at the Norman Lear Center.

Are famous gay people better off than they were five years ago?

Out-Magazine125.jpgIn September 2007, the Lear Center convened a lively roundtable of experts to discuss the Hollywood climate for gay and lesbian entertainers. The discussion analyzed the so-called "glass closet" - a term describing someone who is widely known to be gay without actually being out publicly. Five years later, some industries have taken giant leaps toward equality, and some have only taken baby steps.

HOLLYWOOD: A few cracks in the glass closet
Headlines are quick to congratulate Hollywood on both the increasing numbers of openly gay actors and the matter-of-fact manner in which actors are now choosing to proclaim their sexual identity. While progress has definitely been made, there is still far to go. As public relations guru Howard Bragman, who moderated the 2007 glass closet event, is quick to point out, "There is no out movie star (in fact, some will sue you for making the insinuation)." There is also still lingering damage from a controversial Newsweek article in 2010 that proclaimed openly gay actors are not believable in straight roles. While this article faced a huge backlash, it still undoubtedly pushed some actors further into the glass closet. Another problem is that many of the successful openly gay actors are still white males. Celebrities like Queen Latifah, who is currently the most high profile member of the glass closet, have not yet felt comfortable coming out publicly.

There is one recent shining example of a celebrity of color coming out to fanfare, though. In 2007, Ricky Martin was still deep in the glass closet, but in 2010 he nervously came out on his website, and his dormant career suddenly enjoyed a renaissance. He is currently starring in Evita on Broadway, and when I saw the show this summer, hundreds of people gathered outside the theater to catch a fleeting glimpse of him. As we waited over an hour, I looked around the eclectic group of tourists, and I realized how special it was that all these people were there to celebrate an openly gay celebrity. Part of his hesitation in coming out was fear of losing his career, when in reality it's what reinvigorated his career. It is obvious that he is much happier since coming out, which is a point that pioneering gay actor Wilson Cruz made in the 2007 discussion when he said, "I'm probably happier now in my work, than if I'd stayed in the closet."

JOURNALISM: Equality adjacent
The 2007 glass closet panel focused on OUT Magazine's decision to put Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster on the cover of its glass closet issue. Foster sort of came out a few months later by thanking her long-term partner in an award acceptance speech, but Anderson Cooper still largely remained behind glass. OUT's Shana Naomi Krochmal (now a producer for Current TV) said that he was able to be successful

because he created a "double-sided appeal" in which his gay fans knew he was gay and claimed him as their own, but other fans didn't know and therefore it didn't impact his career. He finally came out in July of this year. He said being out was "just not something I talked about publicly because as a reporter I didn't think it was appropriate. It didn't seem part of my job." In the end though, he decided that his job does not preclude him from being open and honest about his orientation, saying, "I'm not an activist, but I am a human being and I don't give that up by being a journalist." So far, there have been no negative impacts to Anderson's career, just as USC Annenberg School of Communication Director Larry Gross predicted in 2007.

From a financial standpoint, it is easy to see why it may have taken Anderson Cooper so long. In 2007, the only openly gay on-air talent at CNN was Thomas Roberts ,and he left the station soon after coming out. Today though, Roberts is a host on MSNBC and will marry his partner later this month. Roberts is not alone on MSNBC. Rachel Maddow, who was out well before her television career started, headlines the network's news team. Other notable openly gay national journalists include Don Lemon from CNN and LZ Granderson from CNN and ESPN. Now that Cooper is out and open, the most prominent celebrity journalist in the glass closet is Shepard Smith from FOX News.

PROFESSIONAL SPORTS: Still waiting for a hero
Much of the 2007 glass closet discussion focused on Hollywood actors, as it was thought that a conversation about an openly gay athlete in one of the big four American team sports was a far-off dream. Today, we are still waiting for a pioneer to take the first step in opening the pro sports closet, but the groundwork in making pro sports a more hospitable place for an openly gay athlete is definitely being laid. One NFL team and several Major League Baseball teams have created videos telling LGBT teens that "It Gets Better," and there is a growing list of high-profile athletes publicly stating their support for gay rights - most notably Baltimore Ravens Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, Minnesota Vikings Punter Chris Kluwe and Cleveland Browns Linebacker Scott Fujita, who have all made LGBT equality their primary celebrity cause. OutSports recently noted that there are 28 active NFL players who have gone public with their support for gay equality. I created a Pinterest board that displays all of these pros and shows that the league is warming to the idea of an openly gay star athlete.

HIP-HOP: Trickle-down equality
The gay rights movement has long been at odds with the overtly anti-gay tone of hip-hop, but the hip-hop culture has recently embarked on an encouraging ascension toward equality. Over the summer, industry king Jay Z emphatically proclaimed his support for marriage equality, joining a growing list of LGBT supportive hip-hop tastemakers that includes Russell Simmons, Kanye West, Ice Cube, Eminem, 50 Cent and yes, even Snoop (Dogg) Lion. While it is encouraging that the old guys are more supportive, the rising class of hip-hop superstars have a more complicated relationship with gay equality. Industry prince Tyler, the Creator made headlines when his latest album used 213 anti-gay epithets. When Tyler was called homophobic, he said, incredulously, "I'm not homophobic. I just think 'faggot' hits and hurts people. It hits. And 'gay' just means you're stupid. I don't know, we don't think about it, we're just kids. We don't think about that shit. But I don't hate gay people. I don't want anyone to think I'm homophobic." Tyler's odd proclamation was put to the test this summer when his close friend and fellow rising superstar Frank Ocean came out as gay on his Tumblr. Tyler was very public in his support for Ocean (of course, in his own way), and so far the marketplace has followed suit. Ocean's first solo album debuted #1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart, he performed on the Jimmy Fallon show and he opened up Saturday Night Live's season as the first musical guest.

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