By Mark Harris
Updated May 14, 2010 at 06:58 PM EDT

Image Credit: the ever-widening brawl over Ramin Setoodeh’s Newsweek piece, in which he dismissed the ability of openly gay actors Sean Hayes and Jonathan Groff to play heterosexual roles, both Setoodeh and his many critics seem to agree on one thing: A “gay George Clooney” would be a great achievement — the salt-and-pepper-haired, head-bobbing, A-list apex of the long climb up the mountain of acceptance for gay performers in showbiz. In a follow-up item posted on Newsweek‘s website, Setoodeh argues wafflingly that it’s “hard to say” if we’d all be okay with a gay Clooney. GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios then addressed it in yet another Newsweek follow-up, in which he says, “We’re a lot closer to that gay George Clooney today than we were five years ago.” The example has become so pervasive that NPR’s Linda Holmes has even come up with an acronym for it: HGGCG (Hypothetically Gay George Clooney Guy). Finding a gay equivalent for Clooney (what is it about him, the squinty smile? The sharp wardrobe? The Batman suit?) has somehow become the official gay-entertainment equivalent of putting a man on the moon.

Well, it’s time for us to pick a different finish line. Because this one, as a test case, is rigged for failure — in fact, it’s designed to be unachievable and thus to fulfill the gloomy prophecy that straight audiences will allow gay performers to rise only so far before rejecting them.

The phrase “gay George Clooney” is a dangerous kind of shorthand. What it means is “We’ll know we’ve made it when a top-rank action/romantic lead can come out of the closet and nobody will think twice.” The problem is, nobody becomes a top-rank action/romantic lead without everybody thinking twice. Consider Clooney’s career arc, which encompasses 25 years and at least five distinct stages: 1) Journeyman TV hack who appeared in one canceled series after another; 2) Breakthrough co-star of a hit show; 3) B-plus/A-minus-level leading man in mildly successful movies; 4) First-tier star in some big hits; 5) Oscar-winning actor/director/mogul/social conscience. By the time anyone achieves the stature of a Clooney, the public has spent years, maybe decades, speculating about his sexuality, and the actor will have responded one of two ways. Either he will have resolutely refused to talk about his private life — in which case everyone in America will have assumed he was gay anyway, and the test case no longer applies — or he will have spent decades lying, bringing his mother, his handler, or his rent-a-starlet to the Golden Globes and having a series of tabloid-friendly, paparazzi-accessible “romances” that just never seem to pan out. An A-list star who chooses that route has a much bigger problem if he decides to come out: Saying you’re gay is one thing, but publicly rationalizing 20 years of lying won’t win you friends in the straight world or the gay community.

In either case, “the gay George Clooney” is a construct whose time has come and gone — it’s booby-trapped by definition, and it also fails to understand how the next big step in gay-celebrity openness is going to be achieved. No barriers will be broken by a middle-aged movie star like [insert any number of names here] who has spent years papering over his sexuality, but by a new generation of actors who come out early in their careers, without fanfare, fake girlfriends, or embarrassing statements for which they have to apologize, and ascend to the A-list after that. If there were 50 Neil Patrick Harrises and T.R. Knights instead of two, you’d have an interesting array of openly gay performers on upward trajectories, and plenty of future Clooneys from which to choose.

And the frustrating thing about this moment in gay-cultural history is that there aren’t 50 of those guys — there are two or three hundred. The zone between being in the closet and coming out — the “they haven’t said it, but everyone knows” airlock that has been inhabited over the years by everyone from Lily Tomlin to Sean Hayes — has never been more crowded. There are dozens of young gay actors right now who are stars of TV series, shuttling comfortably between New York theater and West Coast pilot season, young men who are stalwarts of the Sundance film festival and of big-budget action films. They bring their same-sex significant others to Oscar parties and Broadway openings. They seem almost completely at ease in their sexuality, and they live comfortably in a category known as “out to the industry,” which means — make no mistake — that thousands of people know that they’re homosexual.

But, whether because of their own nervousness, a misguided sense of career strategy, or (most often, I suspect) the bad advice of an older generation of agents, managers, and publicists who have a vested interest in risk aversion, what they don’t do is come out. They don’t lie, but they hope the question won’t get asked, and when it does, they talk about how they’re very comfortable with who they are without saying exactly who they are, and then they move on. They’re almost out, but they’re stuck one step away from the sunshine.

The thing is, it’s easier than they think for them to take that last step. Coming out, if you’re a well-known young actor, doesn’t have to mean a magazine cover or a long confessional interview about your agonizing journey (unless you want it to); it can be as simple as a statement from your publicist, a casual reference in an interview, or answering the red-carpet question, “Who’s with you tonight?” by saying, “My boyfriend.” And that’s that. Yes, there will be a week or so of Internet hubbub, but avoid self-Googling and you’ll be fine, because that carnival moves on, and quickly. And then, it’s something you never have to worry about again.

Somewhere in the ranks of young gay performers is someone who will, five or 10 years from now, be sitting atop the box-office grosses list or making an Oscar acceptance speech or getting an ovation for his humanitarian work at the SAG awards. If waiting for a star to become “the gay George Clooney” is inevitably going to remain the big objective for some people, here’s one thing candidates for the position should keep in mind: Take care of the gay part first. It’s a hell of a lot easier than becoming the next George Clooney and only then realizing that there’s something you wish you’d mentioned a lot sooner.

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