Ms. Meyers loves to follow celebrities and watch how their lives influence our culture.
Out of the Closet at Great Risk
Public opinion about homosexuality has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, allowing closeted celebrities to emerge at long last. Older stars, who dodged gay rumors for decades such as Richard Chamberlain, Jim Nabors, and Lily Tomlin, are finally able to speak their truth, marry their partners, and lead an open life. But, even in today's liberal climate, some gay celebrities still risk their careers by going public, especially leading men and women in film. Here are 10 gay celebrities who put their fame and wealth on the line to stay true to themselves:
- Ellen Page (now Elliot Page)
- Rupert Everett
- Ellen DeGeneres
- Rosie O'Donnell
- Ricky Martin
- Jennifer Knapp
- Michael Sam
- Jodie Foster
- Kristen Stewart
- Neil Patrick Harris
1. Ellen Page (now Elliot Page)
Page won our hearts as the independent-minded teenager, facing an unexpected pregnancy in the 2007 comedy-drama, Juno. Her nuanced performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, positioning her as a leading lady of cinema. The following year Entertainment Weekly placed the 21-year-old brunette beauty on their list of future A-list stars.
In 2014, Page announced she was gay while giving a speech at the Human Rights Campaign's inaugural Time to Thrive conference. While many openly gay celebrities have found success on news broadcasts and TV talk shows (Anderson Cooper, Rosie O'Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres), most leading men and women of film have remained closeted. If they were to come out, they fear the big Hollywood studios would no longer cast them as leads but relegate them to minor parts as stereotypical gay characters. It's long been believed that audiences will not buy into a gay or lesbian actor playing straight. Thus, Page's declaration was a game-changing act of courage. But, she also described her decision as naive as she faces an uncertain future as a leading lady in films.
2. Rupert Everett
Rupert Everett, the English actor best known in the US for playing Julia Robert's gay buddy in My Best Friend's Wedding, would have warned Ellen Page against speaking her truth. Twenty-five years before Page's announcement, he publicly came out at a time when most celebrities were reluctant to do so. Today, Everett claims his disclosure hurt him professionally and financially. He says Hollywood would not cast him as a leading man, offering him only supporting roles—often as the main character's gay sidekick.
While coming out hurt his career, Everett says it was a plus for him personally. He believes he's more emotionally healthy than stars in Hollywood who keep their sexuality hidden. He says, “I think, all in all, I'm probably much happier than they are. I may not be as rich or successful, but at least I'm vaguely free to be myself.”
3. Ellen DeGeneres
Nobody on earth, not even Rupert Everett, would suggest Ellen DeGeneres was hurt professionally or financially by coming out. She's one of our most beloved stars —host of a long-running talk show, spokesperson for CoverGirl cosmetics, author of three books, and an emcee of award shows such as the Oscars and Emmys. Forbes estimated she earned $75 million in 2015 alone and named her the 50th most powerful woman in the world.
But when Ellen came out publicly in 1997, she took a huge risk with her career. At the time, she starred in the sitcom, Ellen, then in its fourth season on ABC. The following year her show got canceled. Some speculate Disney, owner of the network, became uncomfortable with Ellen's disclosure and stopped promoting the show.
Ellen returned to her roots as a stand-up comic. On stage, she found not only acceptance for being herself but also tremendous acclaim. Hosting her long-running talk show has given her the opportunity to expose her true self to a wider audience with much success.
4. Rosie O'Donnell
Unlike Ellen DeGeneres who came out before starting her talk show, Rosie O'Donnell announced she was a lesbian as her successful program came to an end. For many years, she conformed to the bland, non-confrontational standards set by daytime hosts before her such as Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Gary Collins. Critics dubbed her the Queen of Nice because she was always so sweet, polite, and overly effusive with her celebrity guests.
When she walked away from her highly-rated show, Rosie had plenty of money in her wallet and was willing to take risks with her career. She became fearless. After announcing, “I'm a dyke,” she became an outspoken advocate for gay parents seeking to adopt foster children as she had. She voiced her liberal opinions on controversial issues such as gun control, gay marriage, LGBT rights, and the Iraq war. She even got into a nasty long-running feud with Donald Trump.
5. Ricky Martin
He's the hunky pop singer from Puerto Rico, best known for his 1999 smash, Livin' la Vida Loca. He started singing professionally at 13 as a member of the boy band, Menudo. Today, he's widely credited for bringing Latin pop to American audiences.
After years of politely refusing to discuss his sexuality, Martin came out without much fanfare in 2010. He was no longer the teen idol with a teenybopper fan base. He was a grown man with twin boys. He had a huge gay following. On his website, he wrote eloquently and simply, “I am proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man. I am very blessed to be who I am.”
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6. Jennifer Knapp
While Jennifer Knapp isn't a household name, she's probably familiar to listeners of contemporary Christian music. Knapp is a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter, best known for her albums Lay It Down and The Way I Am. In 2010 she became the first Christian singer to publicly come out.
The music industry is well-known for being open-minded, largely secular, and gay-friendly. It embraces those who are different: rule breakers, trend-setters, and trailblazers. Many singers have found both acceptance of their sexuality and an increased appreciation for their music after coming out. The careers of Elton John, Joan Jett, Melissa Etheridge, and Sam Smith continue to flourish. However, it's likely Knapp did not think this would be the case for her with Christian music fans. She left contemporary Christian music in favor of folk.
7. Michael Sam
Like Jennifer Knapp, this young athlete is treading on unfamiliar territory. He played for the University of Missouri and got named All-American Defensive Player as a senior. When the St. Louis Rams selected him, he became the first openly gay player to get drafted in the NFL.
Although Sam got cut by the Rams and then the Cowboys, he proved that a gay player could find acceptance in the macho-world of pro football— among teammates and fans. The Rams' jersey bearing his name became the second best-selling rookie jersey at the NFL website. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Sam said other gay NFL players thanked him for his courage. He commented, “There’s a lot of us out there. I’m not the only one. I’m just the only one who’s open.”
8. Jodie Foster
Jodie Foster is one of the few leading ladies to come out. While rumors circulated that certain actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood were lesbians— Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford—they soon got stifled by the big studios. In those days, the studios groomed their actors to become stars— providing voice and acting lessons, paying for plastic surgery, steering their careers, and squashing any rumors that would hurt their reputations. But, when Jodie Foster started her career at three years old, the studio system was gone and she grew up learning how to handle celebrity on her own.
Rumors that Foster was gay circulated for years, but they didn't stop her from becoming one of the best actresses of her generation. She starred in significant movies: Taxi Driver, The Accused, and The Silence of the Lambs. Along the way, she earned two Oscars for Best Actress. It wasn't until 2013—after decades of acclaim—that she publicly outed herself at the Golden Globe Awards, marking a turning point in her life and in the lives of all gay actors.
9. Kristen Stewart
A young Kristen Stewart played Jodie Foster's daughter in the thriller, Panic Room, which seems fitting since she represents the next generation of leading ladies. Unlike Foster, who had to worry being outed would hurt her career, Stewart isn't inhibited by those concerns. She doesn't let her sexuality define her—dating both men and women—and rejecting all labels.
If there were still questions about whether a sexually ambiguous actress could become a superstar, they got silenced by Stewart's success. Forbes named her the highest paid actress in 2012, earning $34.5 million. In addition to The Twilight Saga, Stewart has starred in Snow White and the Huntsman, Still Alice, and Woody Allen's Cafe Society. She appears in advertisements for two high-end fashion brands: Chanel and Balenciaga.
10. Neil Patrick Harris
Sometimes it takes a close friend or family member coming out before one truly accepts gay people. Neil Patrick Harris accomplished this on a large scale in 2006 by acknowledging he was gay. The multi-talented performer had won our admiration and affection over the previous two decades. Many remember him as the kid doctor on Doogie Howser, M.D. while others know him as the oversexed Barry Stinson on How I Met Your Mother. Those two series ran for a total of 13 years, making Harris a familiar fixture in our living rooms.
By convincingly portraying a womanizer—earning four Emmy nominations—Harris proved once and for all that audiences could accept a gay actor playing a straight character. He proved it again when romanizing the title character in David Fincher's 2004 feature film, Gone Girl.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on January 29, 2017:
It will be interesting to watch Kristen Stewart's career as a leading lady in film progress. She's really a trailblazer in that area. At this point, she's going strong and her sexuality doesn't seem to limit the roles she gets. She seems rather fearless. Thanks for reading!
Haider from Melbourne on January 28, 2017:
I admire all of them to come forward for truly telling the world about their sexuality. And, I can say that Jodie Foster's, Ellen DeGeneres and Kristen Stewart's careers were not effected by this truth.