Bruce Glikas/
July 02, 2012 at 05:10 PM EDT

In an email to journalist Andrew Sullivan that was posted on the Daily Beast, Anderson Cooper acknowledged that he is “gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.”

The personal life of the popular CNN and CBS newsman has long been a matter of interest and speculation, but Cooper had always sidestepped the issue of his sexuality. But the culture has changed — evolved, you might say — and the recent June 29 EW cover story, below, captured that shift.

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 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.

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