Can openly homosexual actors like Sean Hayes and Jonathan Groff convincingly play it straight onscreen? ''Newsweek'' says no, but EW's Mark Harris thinks they're wrong

By Mark Harris
Updated May 14, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Whenever an actor comes out of the closet, there’s a lot of tired talk about whether he’ll still be credible in romantic leads or whether our presumably shocking knowledge of his personal life will destroy his career. This has always struck me as silly, given that the whole experience of taking in pop culture involves permitting yourself to believe something that isn’t true. (One example that I hope won’t distress you: Robert Downey Jr. does not really have a special suit that lets him fly.) Every time I watch TV, I’m consenting to forget about somebody’s felony conviction or chin tuck or eight-figure income. So suspending my already minimal interest in a performer’s sexuality? No big deal.

I was surprised, therefore, to read a May 10 Newsweek article called ”Straight Jacket,” in which gay writer Ramin Setoodeh complained that it’s ”distracting” and a ”big pink elephant in the room” when gay actors play straight roles. His primary example was Sean Hayes, the former Will & Grace costar who recently came out and is now a Tony nominee for the Broadway musical Promises, Promises. Setoodeh griped that Hayes’ performance turns the show into ”unintentional camp” because he ”seems like he’s trying to hide something.” As opposed to all those years on TV, when he apparently wasn’t trying to hide something, even though back then he actually was.

Before I try to make sense of all this, let me take a moment to help the Broadway-impaired catch up. Promises, Promises is a 1968 musical in which Hayes plays a low-level corporate nebbish who lets his on-the-make bosses use his apartment for trysts with the gals in the secretarial pool. He has three assignments in the show: He has to be funny and nervous; he has to manifest a crush on his costar Kristin Chenoweth; and when he’s excited, he has to burst into song. And you’re telling me that being gay is an impediment for this particular role? It’s practically a prerequisite! Besides which, I have to ask: Mr. Setoodeh, are you new here? This is Broadway musical theater. If you have a serious problem with gay actors playing straight roles, you’re going to have a lot of free evenings on your hands.

On those free evenings, he apparently won’t be watching Glee, since Jesse St. James, the smug Vocal Adrenalizer who had a fling with Rachel (Lea Michele), is played by out actor Jonathan Groff, who the article says comes off as a ”theater queen,” ”feels off,” and is ”distracting” in the role. This particular gripe seems not only petty but, given the circumstances, stunningly arbitrary: Groff is a 25-year-old man playing a high school student…and his sexuality is the problem? Come on. It’s a show about a glee club, for pity’s sake. There isn’t a character in it who isn’t self-dramatizing. Even the straight ones are theater queens (as are, by the way, any number of straight people in real life). Call me crazy, but knowing Groff is gay doesn’t shatter what would otherwise be Glee‘s unflinchingly gritty documentary realism.

The Newsweek article suggests that gay actors take a lesson from Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks, who apparently ”guard their privacy carefully.” That’s funny, because I’m pretty sure I’ve read that both men are openly heterosexual. And yet, somehow I was able to watch Hanks play a gay man in Philadelphia without becoming confused or disoriented. There’s a rigid cultural conservatism underneath this line of thinking, an insistence that homosexuality is so alarming and obtrusive that nobody will ever be able to look past it. For all its uptight grousing about who’s ”queeny” and who isn’t, the real ugliness of this argument is its suggestion that the very act of coming out is a kind of self-sabotage for which you need to atone by making sure you never again do anything that will remind anyone you’re gay. On second thought, don’t bother — if you’ve come out, it’s already too late.

We may not be past this kind of thinking yet, but we’re getting there. Actors who come out aren’t ”distracting” except to those who are invested, for emotional or ideological reasons, in remaining distracted by them. But in 2010, if seeing a gay actor play a straight character is still so unsettling that it can ruin our whole night, perhaps the fault lies not with our stars but with ourselves.