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Why It’s Still a Big Deal When Ellen Page Comes Out

We’ve seen stars of TV shows come out of the closet, morning and evening news anchors announce they are gay, and actors of all different ages reveal their sexual orientation.

But when Ellen Page announced that she is a lesbian, in a speech in Las Vegas at an event sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign on Friday, it still was a big deal, no matter how fast public opinion has shifted on LGBT rights, or how cynical the tendency is to just say, ho-hum.

Hollywood has in many ways led the country in public acceptance, featuring gay and lesbian characters in prime time when animosity toward LGBT Americans was still very much an effective cudgel in a political campaign. Yet it has only been in the last few years where show biz’s household names have started to come out in any significant numbers, casting off notions that it would bring certain harm to their careers.

The fears have been just that. Ellen DeGeneres, after all, is a daytime talk show star (and host of this year’s Oscars) and Neil Patrick Harris stars as a womanizer on a hit network sitcom.

Page reflects the next step in the evolution of coming out: At 26, she is young, an Academy Award-nominated actress, undeniably on the upswing in public popularity and facing enormous pressure with a lot riding on her career. As she said in her speech, the industry can place “crushing standards on all of us”: “how you have to act, how you have to dress and who you have to be.”

What has shifted is the perception of risk. A message of Page’s speech was that the risks of staying in the closet, particularly among public figures, are greater than the perils of just saying, “Yep, I’m gay.” Coverage of celebrities, and all aspects of their lives, hasn’t exactly abated in recent years, which only makes it all the more awkward and difficult to stay in the closet.

Page said she came out “because I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission.

“I suffered for years because I was scared to be out,” she said in her speech. “My spirit suffered, my mental health suffered and my relationships suffered. And I’m standing here today, with all of you, on the other side of all that pain.”

P.R. veteran Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com, notes that her coming out resonates in particular with her generation.

“These are kids who grew up with other gay people,” he says. “It is not scary. It is not frightening. They are the generation of ‘Will & Grace.'”

Bragman has assisted 15 public figures in coming out, starting with “Bewitched” star Dick Sargent in 1991. He consulted college football star Michael Sam, a top NFL draft pick, in his coming out publicly earlier this week. Bragman sees parallels between Sam’s and Page’s announcements, particularly in their age group and with the length of their careers ahead of them.

“I think we are going to see this more and more and more,” he says. “I just think this is the new normal. People are going to be out, and we are just going to be used to it. The only kind of thing we don’t have in Hollywood is the male action star, but that is more nuanced.”

Don’t rule that out, either, as he points to the currency of Hollywood: demographics. The coveted 18-34 age group is “85% positive toward gay rights and gay marriage and gay inclusion.”

“They just don’t care,” he says. “I promise you, when they are looking at a young star, no one is saying ‘He is gay.’ They are saying, ‘He is cute.’ They are saying that whether it is a male or female. That is just the kind of way society is wired today.”

Nevertheless, he says that the “single most important thing a person can do to advance gay rights is to come out of the closet.”

So by that measure, Page’s and Sam’s announcements were big deals, in part because it signals a time when coming out publicly really won’t be. It just isn’t there yet, as is shown by a glance at some social media commentary.

Jason Stuart, national co-chair of the SAG AFTRA LGBT Committee, also says that Page’s announcement shouldn’t have an impact on what types of roles she plays.

“Now she has taken her power back. She can be who she is and she can show people what a powerful actress she is,” he says. More than anything, he thinks it is the press that makes a bigger deal of whether coming out can limit a performer’s choice of roles, when “most people don’t care.”

But it wasn’t always like that. He came out 20 years ago, “when people said I was crazy. But it was eating and gnawing and me, and I felt like a victim,” says Stuart, who is appearing in the upcoming movie “Love Is Strange.” He notes that he isn’t just offered parts playing gay roles. He recently shot a part in another project, “Dirty,” where he plays a straight New York guy who runs a bar and who is “an asshole.”

Nevertheless, he recognizes the pressure on Page, even if it’s become much easier to come out now than a decade ago.

“When you are a big star, it is not just one person,” he says. “You are supporting a community of people. The more people who do what she did, the less it will matter.”

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