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By the way, we're gay

…and it’s truly no big deal. Or is it? How Hollywood’s stars have created a new, quiet — and incredibly effective — way to come out

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Fifteen years ago, when the star of a popular TV comedy decided to come out of the closet, it was big news. Not just big: It was the cover of Time magazine; a major story on Oprah, Primetime Live, and CNN; and the subject of a New York Times editorial that took her to task for her ”ostentatious display of affection with her lover in front of President Clinton.” At the time, it scarcely mattered that Ellen DeGeneres protested that she’d ”never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community.” That role was automatically assigned — by both the news media and a gay population desperate for high-visibility representatives — to any famous person who took such a rare public step. It was not to be relinquished for months, or perhaps years. She’d be expected to weigh in on everything from civil unions to ”Don’t ask, don’t tell” until the next willing celebrity came along.

Last month, another star of a popular TV comedy went public with his homosexuality. But the news that The Big Bang Theory‘s Emmy winner Jim Parsons is gay was reported with such matter-of-fact understatement that my first reaction was a quick Google search to see if maybe he was out already and we’d all just failed to notice. Parsons did not seek out any magazine covers; in fact, he turned down several offers. Instead, the ”big reveal” about his sexuality came in the 33rd paragraph of a Times profile about his return to Broadway this summer in Harvey. Nor did he address it in any quoted remarks within that story. The writer simply noted that Parsons’ 2011 Broadway appearance in The Normal Heart as a gay activist during the early years of the AIDS pandemic ”resonated with him on a few levels: Mr. Parsons is gay and in a 10-year relationship, and working with an ensemble again onstage was like nourishment, he said.” The phrasing made it clear that not only was the news that Parsons was gay not the most important thing in the article, it might not even be the most important thing in that sentence.

But sometimes big news arrives quietly. That new blink-and-you’ll-miss-it style is an important hallmark of changing times. Fifteen years further into the evolution of gay equality than DeGeneres was, Parsons could make his decision with the comfort of near certainty that The Big Bang Theory, which just ended its fifth season as TV’s most watched comedy, wouldn’t even feel a ratings twitch as a result. He could also be confident that he wouldn’t have to carry the rainbow flag for an entire profession — not with American Horror Story‘s Zachary Quinto and White Collar‘s Matt Bomer both having revealed their homosexuality in recent months, and any number of other gay TV personalities, from Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson to Glee‘s Jane Lynch to CNN anchor Don Lemon to Bravo’s Andy Cohen, having pretty much put to rest any questions about the viability of being out in showbiz.

But the approach Parsons took was also about changing tactics — a strategic shift for an era in which confessionalism has been replaced by a kind of well-choreographed offhandedness. Quinto came out publicly last October in the middle of a New York magazine profile just by using the four words ”as a gay man.” Bomer did it by thanking his partner, veteran publicist Simon Halls, and their children while accepting an award. Andrew Rannells, who just left his Tony-nominated role in The Book of Mormon to star as one half of a gay couple planning to have a child on a new NBC comedy, did it on the entertainment website Vulture.com in response to a question about his appearance on HBO’s Girls. His upcoming series is, appropriately, titled The New Normal.

Even if it’s accomplished in a subordinate clause or a passing reference, coming out casually is, in its way, as activist as DeGeneres’ Time cover, although few of these actors would probably choose to label themselves as such. In 1997, her long, self-revealing interviews drew some criticism, but it was the right way for her to own her identity — and, really, the only appropriate choice given the moment in history. It was just after the U.S. apex of the AIDS crisis; the country needed not just to be aware of gay people but to understand that their backgrounds, their hopes, and their struggles were universal. Just saying ”I’m gay” wasn’t enough — you had to be willing to tell your story. The current vibe is, by contrast, almost defiantly mellow: This is part of who I am, I don’t consider it a big deal or a crisis, and if you do, that’s not my problem. It may sound like a shrug, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for indifference. By daring anyone to overreact, the newest generation of gay public figures is making a clear statement that there is a ”new normal” — and it consists of being plainspoken, clear, and truthful about who you are.

That stance is not nearly as casual as it often appears to be. The new art of coming out was field-tested about five years ago, when three TV actors, Frasier‘s David Hyde Pierce, Grey’s Anatomy‘s T.R. Knight, and How I Met Your Mother‘s Neil Patrick Harris, came up with the first shrewd post-Ellen approaches to the subject. Knight, after being backed into an unwelcome spotlight by the news that costar Isaiah Washington had used an antigay slur against him, chose to come out by releasing a statement to People magazine — which many gay celebrities have identified as a sympathetic outlet. His words have since served as a template: ”While I prefer to keep my personal life private, I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me.” Pierce came out merely by permitting a reporter writing about him to mention his partner by name. And Harris was one of the first stars to come out with absolutely no hand-wringing; he addressed the increasing flurry of gossip about his life with a short statement so cheerful and unflustered — it pointedly included the words ”proud,” ”content,” ”happy,” ”fortunate,” ”wonderful,” and, yes, ”normal” — that it almost cheekily threw down a gauntlet: You wanna make something of it?

People did make something of it. They fell in love with him. Harris, then in his second season playing a straight womanizer on How I Met Your Mother, racked up four consecutive Emmy nominations for his role; found a rewarding side gig as the decade’s most versatile awards-show host; and even one-upped any possible jokes about his sexuality by spoofing himself as a sick, twisted closeted straight dude in the last Harold & Kumar movie. What’s more, by coming out from a position of success, Harris unwittingly made himself into the long-awaited test case refuting a decades-old excuse for staying in the closet: the idea, frequently proffered by entertainment execs, armchair quarterbacks, know-it-alls, and homophobes, that if audiences know an actor is gay, they’ll never buy him as anything else. Thanks to Harris — who just completed a seventh HIMYM season built largely around his trip to the altar (with a woman) while tweeting occasionally about his off-camera fiancé actor David Burtka, and their twins — we finally have an answer. It turns out that people actually understand that actors are acting. And they even like it.

Given that, it can be hard to comprehend what’s taken so many actors this long to join him — or why so many more are still on the other side of the closet door. But it’s useful to remember the pressures against coming out that can still emanate from an actor’s own team of agents, managers, and/or publicists (plenty of whom are gay themselves). Twenty years ago, they might have said, ”Don’t come out — you’ll ruin your career!” Today, the phrasing may be gentler — actors are more likely to be told, ”Why rock the boat just when everything’s going so well?” Or they’re stalled with ”Let’s wait for the perfect moment” (i.e., never), or hammered with realpolitik (”Why alienate any segment of your potential audience?”), or handed some self-righteous misdirection as an invisibility cloak (”You should have a right to a private life!”).

Even if an actor waves away all of those warnings, coming out still takes some planning. A lot of thought generally goes into identifying an appropriate interviewer and media venue, although — news flash — it’s not exactly tough sledding to find a gay-friendly entertainment journalist. The smallest details are often the subject of quiet negotiation — for instance, an agreement to place the news deep in a story, or to keep it out of the headline, or not to send out a press release highlighting it.

That may seem like micromanagement, but most celebrities on the precipice of self-revelation are keenly aware that every nuance of tone counts. When country singer Chely Wright came out in 2010, it was preceded by a leak that a major celebrity was about to reveal her lesbianism, leading to speculation about much more famous names. When the subject of the overhype (and subsequent interview blitz) was revealed to be Wright, it risked seeming like nothing more than a way for a not-especially-well-known performer to raise her profile. And when Will & Grace‘s Sean Hayes came out on the cover of the gay magazine The Advocate two years ago — a story for which the magazine was asked not to use the words ”comes out” on its cover — he seemed grudging about his own decision, complaining, ”If you don’t know somebody, then why would you explain to them how you live your life?” Coming-out stories are supposed to be good news: You can’t seek your publicity and hate it, too.

For the most part, though, the latest crop of out celebrities seem remarkably savvy about doing it their way. (For the record, their way included politely declining to be interviewed for a magazine cover story, but indicating that they had no objections to being discussed in it.) They don’t aim to turn themselves into instant spokespeople for LGBT causes.

At the same time, the longer they’re out, the more willing they seem to put themselves on the line at moments when their voices count. In 2008, Harris told Out magazine that he saw himself as ”jester, not advocate.” But four years later, he’s a lot more comfortable being both — hosting an Obama fund-raiser of Broadway stars at which he praised the president’s position on gay marriage, and then, six days later, segueing effortlessly to the Tonys. Wanda Sykes was moved to reveal her marriage to a woman at an anti–Proposition 8 rally in 2008. And when Quinto came out, he made it clear that when he spoke about issues like bullying, he wanted people to know where he was coming from. Collectively, they’re creating a new way of dealing publicly with one’s sexual orientation: speaking in a manner that’s subdued but up-front; leading by example, but not necessarily from atop a pride-parade float; setting boundaries so that some aspects of their lives remain private.

Conversely, those who choose not to come out are finding it harder than ever to protect their privacy. Over the past decade, the press has become more hostile to, and aggressive about, celebrities who are perceived to be closeted to exactly the same degree it’s become more accommodating to those who come out. As the media have realized that being out has gotten easier, they’ve granted themselves the right to knock harder than ever on the closet door. Until a few years ago, coming out was understood to be a high-risk decision. With that in mind, the non-tabloid press adhered to a tacit pact that there was a difference between public figures who lied about their homosexuality (and were thus fair game for ridicule, along with their embarrassing starlet marriages and unconvincing awards-show dates) and those who just didn’t discuss it and therefore had the right to be left alone in a gray zone of discretion. In that ”glass closet,” their homosexuality was common knowledge in the industry, in the press, and among gay people. But they wouldn’t be bothered as long as, in Lily Tomlin’s words, they ”never denied anything, but…never said anything specific.”

That understanding is beginning to erode. Last month, a New York appeals court overturned decades of precedent by ruling that calling someone gay, even inaccurately, is not in itself defamatory. And legalities aside, the inherently insistent and impolite nature of the Internet has given so many people the ability to stare into that glass closet that the notion of ”not out, but not in” has become very difficult to sustain. It’s impossible to imagine that 15 years ago the chief television critic of The New York Times would have dared to belittle Anderson Cooper during the first week of his syndicated talk show, complaining that ”the one thing he hasn’t done yet — and the lacuna grows more obvious and awkward with each show — is talk about his love life. It’s hard to see how he can continue to leave that out selectively.”

That particular no-man’s-land (well, perhaps that’s not the best choice of words) has created any number of convoluted discussions. Nearly five years after Jodie Foster, at an awards breakfast, thanked ”my beautiful Cydney, who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss” — with no subsequent allusion to a same-sex relationship — writers, editors, and gay-rights advocates are still arguing among themselves about whether that counted as coming out. Welsh actor Luke Evans (Immortals, Clash of the Titans), who had been out since 2002, was recently the target of ridicule when a publicist tried to dismiss his earlier, spectacularly unequivocal record of public comments as stemming from being ”inexperienced,” creating a new category known as ”out until being cast in The Hobbit.” And recently, when it was perceived that Queen Latifah had come out by reportedly referring to ”my people” while performing at a gay-pride event in Long Beach, Calif., she found herself explaining to EW’s Melissa Maerz that no, actually, she hadn’t come out. Which leads to a question that begins, ”If you have to explain that you’re not coming out…” and is probably best left uncompleted.

The entertainment industry has long been on the far-forward edge of gay acceptance, so it’s worth noting that in other fields, from sports to politics, the closet — and not the glass kind — is still very much in operation. And for many actors, it’s going to take more than Jim Parsons and Neil Patrick Harris starring on long-running hit series or Zachary Quinto suiting up as Spock in the next Star Trek to eradicate the notion that coming out is a bad career move. Can it hurt? Theoretically, sure — albeit in very limited ways. If your greatest ambition is to be the star of a series of Nicholas Sparks-style sincerity-in-the-rain romantic melodramas, being an out gay man is still probably going to be a handicap. Could an openly gay actor, for example, have gotten cast in Channing Tatum’s role in The Vow? It’s doubtful. On the other hand, could an openly gay actor have gotten Channing Tatum’s role in 21 Jump Street? Absolutely. And if the biggest price you pay for being open about who you are is that you don’t get to be the next Channing Tatum, consider the fact that even Channing Tatum seems to realize that ”doe-eyed romantic lead” is too narrow a career niche to be a life goal.

It’s probably not a coincidence that many of the most recent revelations have come from television actors — the most relatable show-business celebrities, the ones we have in our homes and with whom we feel on almost intimate terms. And many of their announcements have come wrapped in Modern Family-esque stories of domesticity — a loving long-term partner! Engagements! Families! Strollers! When singer Clay Aiken and The Biggest Loser‘s Jillian Michaels came out in People, it was both as gay people and as proud new parents — as if to say to straight readers, ”We’re just like you.”

In many ways, these accounts of falling in love, making a commitment, and having kids are among life’s least controversial milestones. But for a country in the middle of a national discussion about antigay bullying, not to mention an election year and several likely Supreme Court cases in which the ordinary lives of many gay people still cause anger and mistrust in a large (though shrinking) portion of the public, these gentle revelations are anything but mundane. If each announcement seems slightly less important than the one before, that’s as intentional as the ”Oh, by the way…” style in which they’re delivered. But the stories matter more than even those who tell them may realize.

Pop culture is unmatched in its ability to lead a shift in the national mood. If you doubt it, consider that when Vice President Joe Biden revealed his support for same-sex marriage this spring, he noted that ”Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public” than anything else. So although the drip-drip-drip steadiness of coming-out news can seem inconsequential, cumulatively the stories serve as the very quiet herald of a major tectonic shift. What was impossible 60 years ago and dangerous 40 years ago and difficult 20 years ago is now becoming no big deal. There are more and more actors like Chris Colfer, whose transformation from an unknown 19-year-old to a TV star in 2009 was accomplished without any ”coming out” moment at all. He was simply out, and therefore didn’t have to manage or strategize any revelation once he became famous. As Colfer’s generation — the kids for whom public self-presentation via social media is almost a first language — comes of age and takes the spotlight, coming-out stories will give way, more often, to being-out stories. Or, more likely, nonstories. Five years from now, maybe we won’t even feel compelled to draw your attention to them. But in 2012, it’s still worth pausing for a moment to celebrate the people who are paving that road and, strange as it sounds, the approach of a day when news like this is so much a part of the fabric of everyday life that it won’t merit the cover of this magazine. (Additional reporting by Melissa Maerz, Nuzhat Naoreen, and Adam B. Vary)