The culture is indeed changing. A married lesbian will be a judge on the most mainstream - and red state popular - TV show; and the man who was once Doogie Howser is now an openly gay man in Hollywood, with a hit sit-com and a gig hosting the Tonys and the Emmys. Both Neil and Ellen are unthreatening types - and yet also very recognizably gay in affect. What's different about them, and why I admire both immensely, is their achievement of effortlessness with the gay thing. They both seem real. Their sexual orientation is part of who they are, but who they are is also larger and more complicated than that. It's a real achievement - for them and America.
It isn't easy always being out. You don't want to deny something but you also don't want to be entirely defined by it. It was a lot harder in 1991 when I was suddenly turned into a poster-gay for a few minutes. Suddenly I had to be a spokesman; suddenly I was the gay pundit; suddenly my own writing on these issues seemed to be political acts requiring political resistance (mainly from fellow gays), simply because I was out and in public - and so few others were. People project all sorts of stuff onto you, good and bad, when that happens; and the handful of us in the public eye had to just carry on, hoping that the full scope of our work would eventually overshadow one aspect of our lives, but that our gayness could be celebrated as well. Anything but lies. And as more and more people are openly gay, and as more and more of them seem completely like your next door neighbor, it becomes easier.
Harris and DeGeneres have helped a huge amount in this, but it still remains tough for these wholesome, white mainstream voices to strike the right balance. There is a personal toll to being the human bit in the cultural drill. See NPH struggle here:
In his late twenties, shortly after he starred in Rent, Harris was inspired by Danny Roberts, a gay cast member on The Real World: New Orleans. “He was a unique entity at that time, as someone who was seemingly so confident in their own skin that they didn’t need to wear their sexuality, uh” He begins to stumble slightly, realizing he’s about to cross into a minefield of rhetorical missteps. “Or to flaunt their sexuality? To be more of one thing or another.”
He pauses to rethink. “And Iit’s a personal thing, I suppose, but I personally responded to his lack of overt grandstanding. Again, tricky waters, because if I say something like He didn’t wave flags,’ it sounds like I’m disrespecting people that do, who I think are tremendously important, but there’s more than one way to get into people’s psyches.”
The simple truth is that a lot of closeted gay people out there need and yearn for representatives who seem straighter or more "normal" than some gays. And the difficult task is to accept that and be glad for it but never to forget that there is no cultural or personal criterion for civil rights or toleration. In my own defense of masculine gays, there is an embedded injunction: "Leave No Drag Queen Behind." Playing favorites with the majority culture is both demeaning in a way, and misleading. Everyone is a shade or two away from normal; and the pied beauty of humanity should not be carved into acceptable and unacceptable based on things that simply make us who we are.
This much I have learned, sometimes painfully, sometimes joyously. There should be no "good gay" or "bad gay"; there should merely be gay.
And if we work hard enough and simply endure long enough, one day "gay" will simply be another way of being "human".