Toronto
3 min

Fast-emptying closets

Is anyone left in the closet?

George Smitherman and Glenn Murray are both considering running for mayor and no one seems to be entering the “gay thing” in their calculus.

Neil Patrick Harris graced the stage of the Emmys and the cover of New York magazine and everyone seemed to approve. Letter writers gushed and the star himself seemed totally cool with his love life. On the cover, he posed with a tongue-in-cheek smear of lipstick.

There still seem to be a few celebrated closet cases around, especially at the federal level, but elsewhere the famous are scrambling over each other in an effort to get their affections on paper before we get to the point (fast approaching, I fear) where nobody cares.

At age 76 US novelist Reynolds Price has turned to his sexually charged 20s for Ardent Spirits; the latest of three memoirs, it’s reportedly the gayest of the lot.

James Lord, longtime pal to high-voltage Parisian artists and author of three previous memoirs (Some Remarkable Men), is back (posthumously) with a fourth. Completed shortly before his death this summer, it will be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux under the title My Queer War.

And some people like Edmund White just keep on coming out. Not content with flaunting his 3,000-odd tricks in the semiautobiographical The Farewell Symphony and his hustlers in My Lives, he details even more trysts in his new memoir of the 1970s — both his own (with Bruce Chatwin and John Ashbury) and others’ (there’s some excellent dirt on both composer Virgil Thomson and essayist Susan Sontag).

The difference between these people and an earlier generation of gay celebrities seems obvious. It’s not just that they’re out, but that they’re blasé blunt about the whole thing.

“Why I admire both [Harris and Ellen DeGeneres] immensely,” writes gay pundit Andrew Sullivan on his blog, the Daily Dish, “is their achievement of effortlessness with the gay thing.”

Of course that “effortlessness” hasn’t come easily for anyone. For years even the people we now think of as very, very out, weren’t. On TV Paul Lynde was a real screamer, but officially not so much. Gore Vidal spent years declaring himself bisexual and remaining coy about his love life. “I didn’t think to ask,” he said when asked the sex of his first sexual partner. It’s only in recent years — and particularly in his latest memoir, Point to Point Navigation, where he pays tribute to his lover of 50-odd years — that Vidal has begun to discuss his private life.

“Where were you when we needed you?” you want to say, though of course you can’t blame any of these people for steering clear of what was sometimes a rather savage spotlight. Vidal was deeply hurt by the reaction to his early gay novel The City and the Pillar. (The New York Times blacklisted him for years, he says.) And for many years coming out would have served no purpose because there was no audience. Everything was silence.

It took AIDS to bring the gay middle-class out of the closet. Pre-AIDS the gay world was waiters and hairdressers. Afterward it was doctors and lawyers, all clamouring for marriage and other status markers.

Now coming out is so normal that only the transitions of the very old or the very young seem to make the headlines. Last month the New York Times Magazine devoted 7,000 words to “Coming Out in Middle School.” Apparently you have to be 13 to make that big moment remarkable again.

Outing, so big an issue when Michelangelo Signorile first raised it in the early 1990s, no longer seems to be high on anyone’s to-do list. People bitch about closeted politicians but the significance of that posture has declined. There are so many people out that those who aren’t look vaguely ridiculous, out of touch with reality, like squirrels running around hiding nuts they’ll never be able to find.

Besides, closetry is increasingly hard to pull off. With straights as well as gays increasingly in tune with the markers of orientation, there are few good excuses left. Aside from sports, the clergy or the federal cabinet, where’s a good homo to hide?

Lovely as all these developments are, though, I wouldn’t want anyone to think they’re the norm. That way complacency lies. Social movements need a solid consensus to survive and gay lib hasn’t been around long enough to achieve it. There are still lots of people who don’t think gays should be allowed to exist, let alone come out, and you don’t have to look much farther than the comments pages of The Globe and Mail to find them. A couple of weeks ago somebody responded to a story on the reopening of the gay archives with the hope that Harper would soon have a majority. “Then maybe he can fix this terrible mistake Martin made.”

So come out, come out, wherever you are, but don’t play the fool with dissent.