On a recent Saturday in Los Angeles, actors George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jane Lynch, Chris Colfer, Christine Lahti and Jesse Tyler Ferguson were among the stars participating in a reading of Dustin Lance Black’s play 8, a dramatization of the trial challenging California’s Proposition 8 prohibiting gay marriage. It’s not difficult to remember a time when A-listers like Clooney and Pitt wouldn’t have gone near this kind of project for fear of becoming the subject of rumors that they were themselves gay. Of course, that may still happen, but the difference is that fewer and fewer celebrities seem to care. Indeed by not denying speculation about their orientation, stars are actively using speculation about their sex lives to neutralize homophobia.
Take Clooney, for example, who has been the subject of many rumors about his sexual orientation. Rather than reacting angrily, Clooney told the Advocate recently, “The last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, ‘These are lies!’ That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing.”
He’s not the only one. The Big Bang Theory star Johnny Galecki said on The View in 2010, “I’ve never really addressed those rumors because I always figured, Why defend yourself against something that’s not offensive?” Speaking of having played several gay characters in his career, James Franco — who had previously “come out as straight,” a phrase unheard of a decade ago — shrugged last year to Entertainment Weekly, “You know what, maybe I’m just gay.” Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe waited years to address his own gay rumors by mildly saying in 2010, “If people want to say that, they can.” Other celebrities who have reacted with a similar ambiguity and embrace include Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Adam Levine, Rihanna and Mariah Carey. In doing so, they are using their power of celebrity to combat bigotry and intolerance in a way far more powerful than any public-service campaign.
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Of course, the increasing equanimity could also be a cynical effort by stars to avoid offending their gay fans, but the responses come off as too spontaneous and wide-ranging for that to be the case. Not to mention the fact that there are still plenty of homophobic people in the world to offend. It seems more likely that these attitudes are genuine.
The gay stigma will last as long as enough people treat it as a stigma — and not much longer than that. Homosexuality remains a hot-button issue for many. But if more public figures and private citizens continue to treat it as a nonissue, that’s what it will one day become. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” was a Seinfeld catchphrase about more-enlightened attitudes toward homosexuality in the ’90s. In the 21st century, it increasingly goes without saying. And down that path lies, eventually, equality.