The Homophobia Generation Gap

So many microphones, so little communication.

Photos by Mike Watson Images and Digital Vision. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

My new novel, The Actress, is about a 26-year-old theater actress who marries a possibly closeted movie star in his late-40s. I made the actress younger than her husband in part because such pairings are common in Hollywood, but also because I am intrigued by generation gaps and wanted to explore a particular kind: the homophobia generation gap. My protagonist, Maddy Freed, is a millennial who enters her marriage thinking she has progressive ideas about sexuality but later questions herself after she begins to suspect that her husband, Steven Weller, is cheating on her with men. Without giving away the plot, I can say that Weller, a young boomer, came of age in more homophobic times and is confused by what seems like a more progressive, sexually forthright Hollywood era. When Maddy expresses her anxiety about Steven’s fidelity, he replies, “I am loyal. … But I’m older than you, and we do things a different way. We don’t vomit everything up like your generation.”

Generation gaps are useful to novelists, because they are rife with dramatic tension and the potential for hypocrisy. But the homophobia generation gap is also a real-life phenomenon that provides an explanation for what seem to be two contradictory truths: dozens of high-profile entertainers have come out within the last few years, and we still don’t have an A-list male film star who is openly gay. (I discuss men here because the love interest in The Actress is a man, and I believe that male homosexuality is still more stigmatized than female.) I am not diminishing the importance of Cheyenne Jackson, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Neil Patrick Harris, Jonathan Groff, Andrew Rannells, Ellen Page, Chris Colfer, and Jim Parsons, who all came out during the last decade. But most of them are under 40 and got their big breaks within the last 10 years, an era in which homosexuality is widely accepted and gay marriage federally sanctioned. (Harris was a child star but his comeback began about nine years ago.) Their coming out is consistent with their times.

Most men on the A-list are older than the people I just named—in their mid-40s to late 50s. They are old Gen Xers or baby boomers and grew up in a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable to be gay or lesbian. Many have been famous for 15 years or more. Who are they? Robert Downey Jr. (age 49), Leonardo DiCaprio (39), Brad Pitt (50), Will Smith (45), Christian Bale (40), Denzel Washington (59), Tom Hanks (57), Johnny Depp (51), Hugh Jackman (45), Tom Cruise (51), Daniel Radcliffe (24), Daniel Craig (46), George Clooney (53), Matt Damon (43), Daniel Day Lewis (57), Ryan Gosling (33), Bradley Cooper (39), Vin Diesel (46), Mark Wahlberg (43), Ben Affleck (41), and Liam Neeson (62). I took my list from the top 30 people on Vulture’s 2013 Most Valuable Stars, which used a formula that took into account domestic and overseas box office grosses, studio value, likability, and other factors.

It’s possible that none of these men has come out because none of these men is gay. I cannot guess here who might be—for legal reasons that are rapidly changing. (In my own state, it is no longer defamatory to call someone gay, even falsely.) But for the sake of argument, let’s say one of those men sleeps with men and keeps quiet about it. I’ll call him a hypothetical closeted gay celebrity, or HCGA. If an HCGA came out, it would mean shaking off the internalized shame he surely absorbed as an adolescent growing up in a more bigoted society, the shame that made him choose to be closeted to begin with. It would mean dismantling his own powerful, old ideas about manliness, virility, and family, plus all of his profession-specific issues around bankability and power. It would also mean undoing an image shaped, in part or whole, around his heterosexuality.

The attitudinal sea change since the 1960s, when a lot of those A-listers were born, is unthinkable to people born in the 1980s and later—and maybe even to some of the younger gay celebs themselves. I was born in 1973 and raised in Brooklyn Heights, New York. On school playgrounds by the time I was 10 or so, boys called other boys “fag,” “gay,” and “homo”—the words synonymous with “inept,” “uncool,” or “stupid.” (Nowadays, pre-teens call each other “douche,” but I don’t have the room here to say what I think about that.)

Gay men were visible—this was New York City in the ’80s—but they socialized with other gay men, weren’t married, and didn’t have kids. In pop culture they were mostly mockable: Eddie Murphy’s Ramon in Beverly Hills Cop with his “herpes simplex 10,” Jon Lovitz sending up Harvey Fierstein, Jim J. Bullock on Too Close for Comfort. Lesbians were even more unseen in pop culture—except Sandra Bernhard, who got really famous after she started palling around with Madonna.

Homophobia—not to mention transphobia—was ingrained in society. At summer camp when I was around 11, I had a female bunkmate who wore her hair short and went swimming without a top. The counselors told us not to tease her, but we talked about her behind her back. Did she think she was a boy? What was wrong with her? I didn’t bully her, nor did I rise to her defense. I understood that she was different—and that because she was different, she was alone.

That fall, back in Brooklyn, I saw a poster on a public bus about GRID: gay-related immune deficiency. I didn’t know what gay sex was, but a mental association had been formed: gay meant diseased.

Even after GRID became AIDS, AIDS-phobia was paramount and misinformation prevailed. In seventh grade at Hunter College High School, I went to a deli with a friend for lunch. When I asked for a sip of her soda, she said, “My mom said I’m not allowed to share drinks anymore because I might get AIDS.” My jaw fell open. I’d never even kissed anyone, much less had sex. Was she telling all her friends this, or just me? Was it because I lived in Brooklyn?

These interactions were not unusual in the hysterical 1980s, when homophobia and AIDS-phobia collided. My classmate’s idiot mother thought she was being responsible, just like a contemporary Park Slope mom who tells her child not to drink milk unless it’s organic.

When I landed at Brown in the early ’90s, the tide was beginning to change. LGBQ (there was no T then) students were visible and popular. “Gay, lesbian, or questioning?” enticed their posters, which seemed to welcome everyone. I had female friends who switched from dating boys to girls and back again. I kissed a girl at a party. No one ostracized me; we were theater people.

By the time I graduated in 1995, there were lesbian and gay plot lines on TV shows like Roseanne, k.d. lang was selling millions of records, Go Fish had come out, Tom Hanks had done Philadelphia, and Rupert Everett stole My Best Friend’s Wedding. Bisexuality was trendy, Ellen came out, and later the marriage equality movement took off.

Flash forward to 2010, when my daughter entered kindergarten in Brooklyn. Gay parents at the school were visible; it was normal to know kids with two dads or moms. She now has a trans schoolmate who changed pronoun and first name in first grade and uses the teachers’ bathrooms. When my daughter enters college in 2023, mores around sexual orientation will be so progressive they will make 1990s Brown look like the McCarthy era.

But no matter how liberal I consider myself, I remember the bullying I witnessed as a child. I still feel a split second of surprise when I see two men holding hands on the street (maybe because Park Slope isn’t as gay as it used to be). And I am only 40.

Many millennials don’t realize that homophobia is a young word, one that didn’t really take off politically until the 1980s, because before that it was normal to think homosexuality was abnormal. Or that until 1973, homosexuality was classified by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder. Many gays and lesbians themselves had such deep feelings of shame that they entered into miserable marriages or left home or entered therapy. You don’t have to be straight to be homophobic.

So when I picture a hypothetical closeted gay A-lister, I see him standing on one side of a vast homophobia generation gap. On the other side is a happy, out millennial.

The HCGA is trying to evolve with the times, but it’s tough. He’s deep into middle age, and he’s got to keep his body in shape and his face tight, all while maintaining a public image positive enough not to harm him at the box office. He’s also trying to stay relevant in an era when stars are less important. That guy we’re all waiting for, that powerful leading man who could come out and be a role model and effect real change, that guy is not feeling so stable in his career right now. He has a hard enough time staying bankable in a moviemaking era that is less about stars than comic books, pre-existing IP, global audiences, and franchises. He has to make sure that people in countries more homophobic than the United States watch his movies. He’s carefully watching his grosses. He is more than happy to leave coming out to the Zachary Quintos of the world.

The sad byproduct of the generational shift that has led to all this high-profile coming out is that it’s occurring when sexual and gender roles in big-budget Hollywood movies are decades behind the times. Studios don’t make romantic comedies, so women’s earning power has gone down. Only action movies sell tickets on a large scale. For a film to be a hit, it has to be seen by teenagers and people who don’t speak English, and it has to be the kind of movie people will watch multiple times in multiple formats. So we get popcorn franchises with 1950s gender roles.

The people green-lighting those movies, the studio chiefs, are even older than the A-listers—they are baby boomers who brought with them even more retro ideas about sexual orientation. And though there are plenty of out gay and lesbian casting directors, execs, directors, and producers, they, too, are trying to keep their jobs in a changing marketplace, which means they aren’t necessarily leading a political charge.

Not too many years from now, the fortysomething and fiftysomething A-listers will be replaced by a new generation of stars. At that point, we might see some out A-listers. (The professional rise of Neil Patrick Harris, and the way he will soon be the king of all media, is compelling.) But the new gay-listers won’t come out mid-career. They will have come out at 14 or 15 in the LGBTQ clubs of their high schools. Some will already be in same-sex marriages by the time they get famous, wearing wedding rings. Coming out will become an old idea: that gayness is something you keep secret and then don’t keep secret. One day, the term will become as obsolete as the phrase hanging up. The new stars’ homosexuality will be indistinguishable from the other pieces of their identities. They will be gay or lesbian like they are Capricorns or idealists or really good micromanagers.

In the meantime, the A-list remains resolutely (at least on the outside) heterosexual. The HCGA remembers the formative experiences he had as a kid, of childhood bullying and whispered epithets. And he carries the attitudes that prevailed in Hollywood when he first got famous, back in the stone ages of the ’80s or ’90s, even if he sees that those attitudes are shifting.

So the real question isn’t Why don’t we have a gay A-lister? It’s Why was he in the closet to begin with? The answer to that is simple: Things weren’t always the way they are now.