Celebrities are coming out of the closet -- Neil Patrick Harris and others pave the way for openly gay stars

By Mark Harris
Updated November 10, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Every time, it gets a little less shocking, doesn’t it? One week, T.R. Knight, a mild-mannered member of the ensemble cast of TV’s No. 1 show, Grey’s Anatomy, announces that he’s gay via a statement to PEOPLE magazine in which he quite reasonably remarks that he hopes his homosexuality ”isn’t the most interesting part of me.” A couple of weeks later, Neil Patrick Harris, arguably the most popular character on CBS’ well-liked sitcom How I Met Your Mother, describes himself (again to PEOPLE) as a ”content gay man.” Maybe in coming weeks we’ll hear Knight or Harris talk about it on ABC’s The View, hosted by openly (raucously, enthusiastically) gay Rosie O’Donnell, or on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which has won the Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show three years running. Nine years ago, when DeGeneres came out, the news made the cover of TIME. These days, you’d be more likely to find the story told in two sentences on ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s Monitor page.

Suddenly, all those platitudes about how coming out of the closet can destroy a celebrity’s livelihood seem like old, threadbare self-justifications. And those gay celebrities who keep fighting to pass as straight look like embarrassing antiques — lawsuit-filing Liberaces instead of liberationists. What’s changed? Part of it may be generational: Knight and Harris are 33; they’re entertainers who came of age in the 1990s and clearly don’t feel a life in the closet is an acceptable trade-off for having a job. It’s also harder to maintain secrecy in an era of citizen-journalist gossip bloggers and 24/7 ”Guess who I saw?” Internet chatter. But more interesting is a shift in coming-out strategy that may be a model for maintaining one’s career and credibility while revealing homophobia for what it is. Some of the new rules:

If you don’t want being gay to be the most interesting thing about you, make sure it isn’t. Knight and Harris are both employed on network TV shows; they’ve got jobs (and, presumably, job security) and second careers as theater actors to fall back on in between series. Coming out doesn’t look like a desperate grab for attention when you’ve got a nice gig already.

Try not to have spent the previous decade lying. Neither Knight nor Harris had constructed elaborate ”I just haven’t found the right woman” stories that they then had to admit weren’t true; they just hadn’t talked much about their personal lives. It’s easier to announce something than to have to announce something and retract something. (See any number of movie stars; you’ll find them at the bottom of a big hole they’ve dug for themselves.)

Sound bored. Both actors’ statements had the undertone of a shrug, a whiff of ”I don’t know why people particularly care about this, but I’m gay, and I don’t have a problem with it.” Of course, this is slightly disingenuous; in a medium in which gay characters are underrepresented and in which out gay actors are far outnumbered by closeted ones, they know exactly why it matters. But setting the right tone early — one without a note of apology or grandiosity — helps.

If you’re going to come out, do it in the mainstream press. It’s no accident that PEOPLE magazine, not The Advocate, is suddenly the first stop beyond the closet door; by putting your news in the mix of celebrity pregnancies, divorces, and Malawian adoptions, you plant yourself firmly in the mainstream of showbiz news, and of showbiz.

Skip any note of self-congratulation for your bravery. Let others pat you on the back, but please, no speeches about how you know this might ruin your career. That wheezy whine about how the ”industry” will never allow you to play an action hero or a romantic lead in a Sandra Bullock movie belongs back in the closet. And by the way, if all you want out of an acting career is to play an action hero or a romantic lead in a Sandra Bullock movie, think about expanding your horizons.

Brace yourself: Gay people will still gossip about you. And call you B-list. And take long-lens pictures of you. And speculate endlessly about your private life. Exactly as if you were straight. On the other hand, if you do get even more famous and successful, you won’t have to take your publicist to the Oscars as your date.

Avoid proud characterizations of yourself as “straight-acting” as if it matters, especially when you’ve been out for all of 10 minutes. Lance Bass, this means you. Guess that’s why they call it acting.

There’s no reason to pretend that gay celebrities don’t face plenty of homophobia, from avid devourers of gossip who huff and puff, ”Why can’t people keep their personal lives private?” to, in some cases, their own colleagues. In a world in which Rush Limbaugh can mock Michael J. Fox, don’t expect common decency to prevail all the time. If it did, Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington’s reported use of the word faggot to describe one of his own costars would have made bigger news than Knight’s homosexuality. But something is changing when Ellen’s ”Yep, I’m Gay” gives way to the 2006 model: ”Yeah, I’m gay — you wanna make something of it?” Not really, as it turns out. But Harris and Knight have plenty of gay colleagues who still aren’t out — and we’re sure these two actors wouldn’t mind some more company in the growing ranks of the forthright.