By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
“Once it was ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’ Now it won’t shut up.” So quipped Mike Nichols back in the day — so far back, in fact, that it’s impossible he imagined then that five decades later he’d find himself directing the television adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a prime example of refusing to shut up. Nichols, like so many other show-business sophisticates, knew how the game was played: Gays and lesbians were everywhere, but everyone was supposed to pretend we weren’t. Heterosexuality ruled with an iron glove. You stayed “in the closet,” lying and hiding rather than risking the loss of job, family and even life itself.
Of course, there were exceptions. If you were well-fixed financially or well-connected socially, you could have a “private life” — even one of sybaritic excess like the one enjoyed by famed photographer George Platt Lynes. “For more than a decade [Lynes] conducted a triangular love affair with the curator Monroe Wheeler and the writer Glenway Wescott,” Armand Linanger recently noted in The New York Times. “He later got cozy with his studio assistant and, after he died in World War II, moved in with the assistant’s younger brother.” Clearly these were things that “everybody knew” in that rarefied and socially protected world. As for the outside world, the credit sequence of Milk, with its newsreel footage of police raids on gay bars, tells the story. “Sodomy” laws were still on the books, so those likely to violate them were “perps” by definition. The gay-rights movement, in which Harvey Milk was pivotal, fought back against all that.
Not surprisingly, Milk gets the last word in director Kirby Dick’s new documentary Outrage, which focuses on the closeted gay politicians who have worked against gay rights. [Full disclosure: I get a “thank you” in the credits, as Dick consulted with me on an early version of the project.] Initially, this radical documentarian (whose works include Twist of Faith, Derrida and This Film Is Not Yet Rated) was interested in making a film about the “coming out” process. But as he learned more about “the closet” and the way it works, he shifted his focus to the corridors of political power.
Many familiar names and faces are on view here: former Senator Larry “Wide Stance” Craig, former New Jersey Governor Jim “I am a gay American” McGreevey and, most important, current Florida Governor Charlie Crist, whose aspirations to higher office will likely be brought to a screeching halt by the film’s scrutiny of both his overall hypocrisy and his particularly thuggish treatment of ex-boyfriends. He’s not alone in this, as the film makes clear in its recounting of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s cowardly and reprehensible treatment of a lover he discarded in his climb to the top. At that very top one finds McCarthy-era anti-Communist and anti-gay crusader Roy Cohn — the most vividly drawn of all the characters in Angels in America — reveling in the power “the closet” gives him. The status quo had no intention of “outing” Cohn, lest the system deprive itself of the power to inflict damage on those deemed less valuable.
Needless to say, such reprehensible behavior will doubtless continue in one form or another long after Dick’s film has faded from memory. We’re talking politics after all. But in some respects, things have changed radically. On June 26, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence vs. Texas brought sodomy laws to an end, and with them the notion that homosexuals constitute a criminal class. As supreme homophobe Justice Antonin Scalia noted at the time, same-sex marriage would doubtless follow, as indeed — to his considerable chagrin — it has. Iowa and Vermont have just joined the small but growing number of states granting “marriage equality,” with more to come faster than most of us probably think.
The very definition of “gay marriage” has certainly changed. In the not-too-distant past, it meant you either found the right lesbian, as Cole Porter and Paul Bowles did; or, in the case of New York City Ballet impresario Lincoln Kirsten, a “broad-minded” sophisticate like Fidela Cadmus (sister of the very gay painter Paul) only too happy to forge a legal alliance in which husband and wife led “separate lives.” But there’s nothing separate about Ellen and Portia (no last names needed). Ellen’s triumph after the presumed disaster of her coming out has changed the landscape of show business. Yes she lost her sitcom, but her afternoon variety show is far more suited to her talents, proving that an “out” lesbian can be as welcomed in America’s living rooms as anyone else. Talent will out — and that’s the only “out” that matters today, with Neil Patrick Harris conquering not only Broadway (Rent, Assassins) and TV (How I Met Your Mother) but the viral media of the Internet too (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog.) What’s especially telling in Harris’ case is that Barney Stinson, the “toxic bachelor” he embodies so amusingly on How I Met Your Mother, is essentially an antic update of the character Rock Hudson played in his comedies opposite Doris Day. The difference being that Hudson, who far more ordinary Americans knew was gay than has ever been formally acknowledged, could never come out. There’s no question that the damage this wrought on his psyche drove him to alcoholism and sexual recklessness. A steady boyfriend like Harris’ lover David Burtka was unthinkable for Hudson.
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