Gay or Straight?

It’s Nobody’s Business Now that Jodie Foster is wearing a ring identical to that of her female “constant companion,” Cydney Bernard, the issue of how in it is to be out in Hollywood has once again reared its ugly head. While Foster agreed to be photographed in the ring for the cover of W magazine and is reportedly raising her son with Bernard, she has made no public declaration of her homosexuality. Several years ago this mum-keeping might have driven me nuts, but lately I’ve been thinking Jodie might be onto something: her sexuality is her own damn business.

Everyone’s heard rumors about Ambigu-stars, like John, Kelly, Kevin, Tom, Nicole, Rosie, Keanu, and Ricky. In fact, so many entertainers are rumored to be gay that you can’t go to the movies anymore without some shmo whispering cynically during a love scene: “Yeah, right.”

And it’s not just media insiders who partake in rumor-mongering; it’s everyone. Several months ago when I was called for jury duty, watching TV in the selection room, I saw Rosie O’Donnell interview Ricky Martin. As she proceeded to fawn all over him and his perfect buns, the woman next to me, a middle-aged schoolteacher from Bay Ridge, nudged me and said, “Too bad he’s not her type,” then rolled her eyes dramatically.

The obsession with celebrity sexuality goes as far back as moving pictures themselves. Kenneth Anger, in his classic Lalaland dish book, Hollywood Babylon, says 1930s Fox director F.W. Murnau was rumored to favor gays when it came to casting, Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert were said to be lovers, and there was frequent speculation about Greta Garbo and her writer friend Salka Viertel.

While today many celebrities are choosing to out themselves (Rupert Everett, Melissa Etheridge, Ellen deGeneres) twice as many respond to gay rumors with legal action or public denial. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman won a suit against London’s Express on Sunday for printing a story claiming Cruise is gay, and Kevin Spacey has repeatedly dismissed rumors of his homosexuality. Because it’s so difficult to prove that anyone is gay, in the absence of explicit photos, we may never get to know the truth about Ambigu-stars. And if it’s true that the Scientology movement threatens to out its gay members if they stop contributing to the movement, it will only add to the code of silence.

….Our obsession with the who-is-gay-in-Hollywood question, says Manhattan psychotherapist Scott Manus, stems from our anger at deception. “If a movie star is gay,” explains Manus, “and we’re watching him go to premieres with his beautiful wife, then we’re being actively deceived and we don’t like that.”

Gay-gossiping is a way of differentiating ourselves from the philistines who Don’t Know Any Better – those imbeciles out in Iowa who look at John Travolta and see a devoted family man, who watch Tom and Nicole in Eyes Wide Shut and think, “They must really have a great sex life.” At the end of the day, we don’t want the wool pulled over our eyes. We want to be in-the-know.

But if a movie star’s public persona is what enables him to make a living, and his public persona shapes the roles he is offered, isn’t it his right to pull the wool over our eyes — as long as he can get away with it? Just as it’s his right to get chin tucks, hair plugs, and eye lifts in the interest of prolonging his sex appeal? Even if Jodie Foster is a lesbian, she’s got a right to keep playing straight roles so long as those roles interest her, and so long as people will pay to see her play them. And if she ever decides to make an announcement about her sexuality, it’s certainly not going to be because her fans want to know, but because she arrived at the decision on her own time for her own reasons.

Gay-gossip is the newest and most clever form of homophobia: it lets us judge and mock rumored gays under the guise of being liberated. If I think Kevin Spacey is gay and roll my eyes during his sex scenes, I can always pass my behavior off as gay-friendly: “Why doesn’t Kevin love himself enough to admit who he really is?” But by obsessing over his sexuality instead of judging him as a performer, I’m engaging in the precise form of homophobia that gays and lesbians despise — judging them by their orientation instead of their personhood. At the same time, I’m exhibiting a double standard: how can I defend the late Princess Diana’s right to privacy regarding her love life while at the same time chastising gay-rumored stars for staying silent about their own?

With our increasing desire to learn the inner secrets of the stars, we are becoming more interested in the behind-the-scenes gossip than on-screen magnetism and acting ability. Ultimately, we’re the ones who lose out. A conversation about the authenticity of Spacey’s performance as a straight man (who refuses a gay kiss) in American Beauty will be a lot shorter, less conclusive and less interesting than one about the moral messages of the film itself. At a recent forum on gay athletes, Mariah Burton Nelson, author of The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, said that gay fans frequently ask her why certain female basketball players haven’t come out. She responds by asking the fans whether they themselves are out – in every aspect of their lives. “I don’t think it’s fair to expect more of athletes than we expect of ourselves,” she said. The same might be said for Hollywood stars.