In 1933, film star William Haines was arrested in a Los Angeles YMCA, with a sailor he had picked up. When then given the choice by MGM studio head Louis B Mayer between a sham "lavender marriage" or continuing his relationship with his partner, Jimmie Shields, Haines chose the latter. Implicit in this choice was the destruction of his career, which duly followed when he was fired by MGM and other job offers dried up.
Haines is widely considered to be the first openly gay Hollywood actor. Having sacrificed his acting career to live with the man he loved, Haynes (as if the fooling around with a sailor in a YMCA thing hadn't been quite camp enough) became an interior designer.
Nearly a century later, it would be difficult to argue that things didn't get better. From Jodie Foster to Ezra Miller, we have our fair share of out, proud and mainstream LGBTQ actors. But to say we're at a point where coming out in Hollywood doesn't matter would be disingenuous.
In a recent interview with Harper's Bazaar, Kristen Stewart – who has been open for a while now about her sexual fluidity – revealed that the more anachronistic side of the film industry is still alive and well. Or at least it very much was earlier in her career, when she was told holding her girlfriend's hand in public could prevent her from getting big roles. This isn't quite being given the choice between a faux straight marriage or obscurity, but it is indicative of yet another kind of ugliness in an industry already riddled with accusations of sexual misconduct by powerful men.
"I was informed by an old-school mentality," said Stewart, "which is – you want to preserve your career and your success and your productivity, and there are people in the world who don't like you, and they don't like that you date girls".
Stewart entered the mainstream in 2008, with her starring role in the first Twilight film. This was just over a decade since Ellen DeGeneres's career had very nearly been sunk by her coming out as gay. After opening up about her sexuality on the Oprah Winfrey Show, DeGeneres's sitcom Ellen was soon cancelled and – just like William Haines over 60 years before her – the job offers dried up.
This was, of course, until the debut of The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2003. DeGeneres rebounded spectacularly, and her talk show is now one of the most popular in the US. She's also, it's safe to say, The Lesbian; the go-to when thinking about famous gay women. Certainly, when I was a lesbian teen in the mid 2000s, she was one of the very few out women in the public eye. Had it not been for her, it may not even have occurred to me that being a famous lesbian was possible.
Like DeGeneres, Stewart's sexuality clearly hasn't ended her career. What's more – in spite of the threat of obscurity – Stewart is regularly papped holding hands with (or even kissing – shock, horror) women she's dating. So I can only imagine how satisfying it is for her to know whoever told her this was career suicide has just seen her cast as one of Charlie's Angels.
This isn't to say coming out isn't still a big deal for actors. When Ellen Page came out in 2014 , she did so via an emotional speech at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's "Time to Thrive" conference. "You have ideas planted in your head," said Page, "thoughts you never had before that tell you how you have to act, how you have to dress and who you have to be. I have been trying to push back, to be authentic, to follow my heart, but it can be hard." This was before announcing, "I'm here today because I'm gay."
Likewise, a year earlier Jodie Foster had come out in an acceptance speech at the Golden Globes . Rumours had circulated about Foster's sexuality for decades, so the actress, then aged 51, finally taking ownership of her identity felt like a powerful, perhaps even pivotal moment. But – in Hollywood terms – "rumour" is a word almost synonymous with "gay". It's a pejorative word, suggesting that the thing the rumour is about must be negative. You rarely hear "rumours" that someone is a human rights activist.
In the Golden Age of both Hollywood and inter-actress lesbian drama, rumours about the exact nature of the relationship between Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo must have been hard to avoid. There were rumours about Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Rock Hudson (who came out in the Eighties). Lavender marriages – in which a gay actor weds a member of the opposite sex to deflect attention from their sexuality – could go right back to the silent film era. Rumour had it that Jean Acker's marriage to Rudolph Valentino was a sham, as Acker was a lesbian.
The trend for scrutinising actors' sexuality continued well into the Nineties and early Noughties, with Tom Cruise gay rumours becoming a sort of early meme. Cruise successfully sued the Daily Express in 1998, over the newspaper's allegation that his marriage to Nicole Kidman had been one of the lavender variety. To this day, actors cite fears of being typecast and overlooked for straight roles as a reason for hiding their sexuality. The idea that a gay actor couldn't possibly play a heterosexual (although straight actors regularly win Oscars for playing gay ones) seems to persist. Particularly when it comes to male actors.
In recent years, a number of actresses have come out as bi, pansexual, or sexually fluid. Tessa Thompson, Alia Shawkat, Evan Rachel Wood and Cara Delevingne are all part of what the more cynical among us may consider a trend, and what those who understand the pressures of being closeted will see as a moment of liberation. Whatever it is, men are far slower to follow. And, off the top of my head, I can only think of a couple of gay actors who aren't systematically cast in gay roles (Jim Parsons and Neil Patrick Harris, in case you were wondering).
Coming out may not be the career-ruiner it once was, but we're clearly nowhere near – in an industry that remains so painfully image conscious – a point at which it can be done casually, and without any fear of ramifications. I only hope that other high profile queer actors will eventually take Kristen Stewart's lead and hold hands with reckless abandon.
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