On July 12, 20 men and women walked into the Directors Guild of America building on Sunset Boulevard and handed over purple tickets with black lettering that read, “Taking It to the Streets: LGBT Directors Get Political.” The event was sponsored by Outfest, a leading gay and lesbian film festival. But when Emmy-winning director Todd Holland began speaking, it initially appeared as if festival organizers had invited the wrong, far-too-safe panelist.

Introducing himself as one of the “least political” directors on the stage, which he shared with filmmakers Kirby Dick, Freida Lee Mock, Jamie Babbit, Katherine Brooks and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, Holland announced that “my whole thing about being political is kissing my husband at the Emmys.” The gay director added that “just living honestly” was also a “political thing.”

Within a few minutes, Holland would, controversially, throw that relatively mundane and safe political stand out the window. It grew interesting after Dick, a straight man and director of Outrage, a documentary about closeted, gay politicians, said that during his research for Outrage, he looked into the issue of closeted, gay actors. Dick concluded: “There is an argument to be made that the Hollywood gay community is not doing enough in this area. … There’s an unwillingness to take this on.”

Holland spoke right after Dick, but he addressed filmmaker Herman-Wurmfeld’s initial question, “What can we do?” about closeted actors. Holland, citing the extremely competitive nature of the entertainment business, said that when young, gay actors ask for his advice on whether or not they should come out in Hollywood, “I say, ‘Stay in the closet.’ ”

Dick responded to Holland’s remark, describing it as a “regressive argument.” But Herman-Wurmfeld seemed uncomfortable with the debate, and quickly ended the discussion by showing a clip of an unrelated movie.

Holland, a 47-year-old gay man who has become a success with critically acclaimed TV shows such as The Larry Sanders Show and Malcolm in the Middle, is an informal mentor to young, gay male actors. They seek his advice, he told the Outfest audience, and he routinely tells them to stay in the closet.

A day later, many in the gay and straight community were aghast. Several days later, the debate over Holland’s views shows no signs of letting up.

“It perpetuates internalized homophobia, that self-hatred,” says Robin McGehee, a leading gay-rights activist in California, and one of the key organizers of the Meet in the Middle pro–gay marriage rally in Fresno several weeks ago. “It’s what leads kids to kill themselves, it’s what leads gay people to get involved in straight marriages. … The sick thing is that [Holland’s comments] are coming from one of our people.”

Rick Jacobs, the gay founder of Courage Campaign, a progressive, grassroots political group, agrees. “It’s very important to have mentors tell younger people to be themselves. Anything else harms them.”

Holland’s advice to young gay actors might be the result of his family experience. As he explained at the Outfest panel, he “came out late in life” but his brother came out at a younger age. Holland said his family didn’t handle it well.

But in trying to help young actors avoid career risks, entertainment insiders say, Holland may actually be giving them bad business and creative advice. Variety Managing Editor Ted Johnson, an openly gay man who has covered gays in Hollywood, says staying in the closet is “antiquated.” He explains that the special grooming for superstardom isn’t necessary anymore. “We’re not living in the age of megastars,” Johnson says. “The energy they would have to devote to staying in the closet could actually be used to being better actors.”

Holland’s advice “is a relic of 10 years ago,” the managing editor adds. “The times have changed very quickly.”

Longtime filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd, a straight man who has faced his own difficulties in Hollywood by not hiding his conservative politics in an industry run by mostly liberals, concurs that Holland’s advice is way off the mark. “It’s counterintuitive,” says Chetwynd, director of the controversial 1987 true story The Hanoi Hilton, adding, “If you aspire to be creative, you must be who you are. Being creative requires an honesty.”

On July 14, after nationwide criticism of his remarks, Holland released a public apology through Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a media-watchdog group. “As an openly gay man in Hollywood,” the carefully worded statement reads, “I know firsthand the tremendous challenges that people throughout the industry face in terms of being open about who they are. For people who know me, they know that I believe it’s important for people to live openly and authentically, and I am sorry for my poorly chosen words at Outfest. At the end of the day, I hope my comments do not prevent us from having honest, thoughtful conversations about the significant barriers that make being an out actor in Hollywood an ongoing obstacle.”

GLAAD PR director Richard Ferraro says his organization “reached out” to Holland after his comments at Outfest. In his statement, Holland says nothing specifically about not again offering such advice to actors. Ferraro seemed fine with the statement.

“Holland stated: ‘It’s important for people to live openly and authentically.’ GLAAD agrees with this,” Ferraro wrote to the Weekly in an e-mail. “He also apologized for his ‘poorly chosen words.’ GLAAD works to raise the ‘honest, thoughtful conversations’ that he mentions.”

Karen Ocamb, news editor of Frontiers and a kind of dean of gay journalism in Los Angeles, isn’t so satisfied. “If [Holland] really wants to have an honest, thoughtful conversation about the significant barriers to being an out actor, as he says — well, then let’s do it. Let’s have a big, blowout conversation — with out actors and agents, and PR guys, and studio heads. Let’s get at the truth. We don’t need a Hollywood version of ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell.’ ”

And SAG weighed in, citing its efforts to eliminate discrimination through public forums such as panel discussions, as well as privately by educating casting directors. SAG general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland e-mailed his comment that the Guild is looking into the idea of “private get-togethers with key industry leaders to encourage greater inclusiveness” and sketch out some kind of nondiscrimination plan.

The Holland dustup is far from over. Within the Hollywood machine — casting directors, agents, studio execs — many assume that there’s a bias against gays in middle America. Many decision-makers don’t want to risk multimillion-dollar projects by hiring openly gay actors, who may turn off those moviegoers.

But as critics of the Holland viewpoint have noted in recent days, advising young gay men to “stay in the closet” if they want to succeed in Hollywood creates a vicious cycle in which that secrecy tends to feed what some call “institutionalized” homophobia in Hollywood.

“There’s still a lot of prejudice in this town,” publicist Howard Bragman says. The gay founder of Fifteen Minutes, a high-powered public-relations firm in Los Angeles, Bragman has worked in the entertainment world for 30 years, with such clients as Stevie Wonder, Ricki Lake and Benjamin Bratt. And his book Where’s My Fifteen Minutes? includes a chapter dedicated to “coming out.”

But Hollywood, he says, and in particular the business of casting, is driven by a process of rejecting and weeding out. “Casting is a red-flag business,” explains Bragman. “It’s often a process of elimination, and what you don’t want to do is give people one more reason not to pick you.”

So, Bragman says, gay actors try to keep their heads low in an effort to improve their odds of being cast in a major movie or TV show — he says, much to their agents’ and managers’ relief.

Not only do gay and straight agents follow that practice, so do casting directors. “They won’t tell you that,” says Bragman, but he’s heard “horror stories.” In fact, he offers, “some of the biggest offenders” in promoting institutionalized homophobia in Hollywood “are the gayest people in town.”

Contact the writer at prmcdonald@laweekly.com.

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