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"Out" actors in television show a shift in culture

October 17, 2011

By Matthew Gilbert

In with the out crowd

Critic’s NotebookGay actors have found an unexpected place to come out: television

ShareE-mailPrintIn a cover story for Entertainment Weekly last month, Neil Patrick Harris wrote about surviving in show business and bypassing the curse of the child star. The Hollywood overachiever, who plays the neurotic womanizer Barney on “How I Met Your Mother,’’ mentioned coming out as gay to the public in 2006. “I must say,’’ he wrote, “the indifference that most people expressed was the greatest reaction of all - and a reflection of a nicely evolving culture.’’

Is Harris just a lucky exception as an openly gay actor who works steadily in the mainstream, or is he right about our culture? Almost 15 years after Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, it looks as though Harris is really onto something - something about the culture of TV.

There certainly is a growing indifference about seeing openly gay actors in this country, but only on the small screen. In the movies, Hollywood still operates under a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, with rumors of closeted stars hiring PR agents to construct straight hookups for them in the tabloids. Television, on the other hand, has become a far more frank environment, a place where openly gay actors are finding lots of work - and not just playing gay characters.

DeGeneres and Harris are the oft-cited examples, along with Jane Lynch and Chris Colfer of “Glee.’’ But there are many, many others right now, including Linda Hunt of “NCIS: LA,’’ John Benjamin Hickey and Cynthia Nixon (as a couple) of “The Big C,’’ John Barrowman of “Torchwood,’’ Jesse Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family,’’ Denis O’Hare of “American Horror Story’’ and “True Blood,’’ Cheyenne Jackson of “30 Rock’’ and “Glee,’’ Cherry Jones of “24’’ and the forthcoming “Awake,’’ and Alan Cumming of “The Good Wife’’ (he’s bisexual but in a gay marriage).

Watch groups are always counting the numbers of gay characters on TV - Fox currently features the most, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) - but few appear to be taking note of this new break in ground. Other out TV-ish names: Sean Hayes, BD Wong, Portia De Rossi, Wilson Cruz, Bill Brochtrup, Lily Tomlin, David Hyde Pierce, Wanda Sykes, Bryan Batt, and T.R. Knight. Last month, while starring in the now-canceled “Playboy Club’’ on NBC, “Firefly’’ alum Sean Maher came out. He took the leap that out actor James Duke Mason (son of Belinda Carlisle, grandson of James Mason) is encouraging with his “Trailblazer’’ campaign to get actors out of the closet. If the public can buy Annette Bening as a gay, the logic goes, surely they can now buy Maher as straight.

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