You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Why Gay Movie Stars Are Staying Locked in the Closet

There’s a vast and growing list of prominent gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender media and entertainment figures — just don’t count movie stars among them.

Celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Caitlyn Jenner and Neil Patrick Harris have kicked open the closet door with little to no damage to their careers. In some cases, they’ve found themselves more in demand after revealing their sexual preferences or gender identification.

Yet there’s one glass ceiling that remains stubbornly resistant to cracks.

No A-list film actor has yet to come out publicly while at the pinnacle of his or her career. Sure, Jodie Foster gave an elliptical Golden Globes speech about being a lesbian, and out actors Ian McKellen and Zachary Quinto helped anchor the “X-Men” and “Lord of the Rings” series, and the rebooted “Star Trek” films, respectively. Yet despite their prodigious talents, none of them has the power to secure a greenlight on their name alone.

In some cases, business concerns, not personal comfort, lead to silence.

“There’s this narrative that people are attached to: You cannot come out because it’s going to hurt your career,” says Ellen Page, the “Juno” star who came out in 2014. “And that’s potentially true. When I made the decision to come out, I wasn’t naive to that.”

Public opinion may be shifting, with a majority of Americans now favoring gay marriage, but the U.S. is not the only market for film. Hollywood has become increasingly dependent on foreign countries such as China and Russia, which boast sprawling populations of moviegoers, as well as draconian anti-gay laws.

“In most territories, actors still sell films. It’s their face onscreen,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Their films probably wouldn’t play in China.”

There are safety issues to be aware of as well.

“There’s a lot of homophobia in the world,” says Kelly Bush, founder and CEO of ID Public Relations. “In too many parts of the globe, you can be prosecuted or jailed for being gay, you can be murdered without repercussions or put to death by the state. If you’re famous and you’re gay and you travel a lot, you have to be aware that there’s a lot of hate out there, and that makes you more vulnerable.”

While more and more Americans endorse LGBT rights, many have trouble suspending disbelief when it comes to seeing gay actors portraying certain roles. In a survey commissioned by Variety, six in 10 adults say they would be less likely to see an action film with a gay leading man or woman, while four in 10 say they’d be more likely to skip an action film with a lead gay character.

The scale of these productions may make gay action stars wary of making any kind of announcement that could depress ticket sales.

As society changes, that caution will fade, predicts “Star Trek” actor George Takei, who came out in 2005. But Takei acknowledges that right now, the economic risk is big. “You’re spending sometimes hundreds of millions,” he says. “Studios want every dollar to count.”

At least being identified as gay is no longer seen as slanderous. More than a decade ago, Tom Cruise sued men who accused him of having male lovers. Today, stars like James Franco make sport out of keeping fans guessing about their sexual orientation. Others, such as “The Hunger Games’  ” Josh Hutcherson, have said they’re straight, while refusing to rule out the possibility that could change. Neither career has suffered in the process. If anything, younger moviegoers view them as cooler because of their refusal to accept traditional labels.

“Millennials are more accepting,” suggests Howard Bragman, a publicist who has helped actors like Meredith Baxter and football player Michael Sam come out.

Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” believes a gay A-lister will emerge organically: “A young gay or lesbian actor will come up through the ranks and end up being so good, and someone America finds so winning, they end up in a position to get films greenlit.”

Yet the industry remains resistant to change. Mainstream movies don’t just suffer from a lack of gay talent; they largely steer clear of dramatizing gay life, preferring to leave that to indies such as “The Kids Are All Right” and “Love Is Strange.” Less than 18% of the more than 100 films released by the major studios last year featured gay, lesbian or bisexual characters, and no films had transgender characters, according to a GLAAD study.

That’s in contrast to television and digital programming, where shows like “Modern Family,” “Transparent,” “Sense8,” “Shameless” and “Empire” feature strong lesbian, gay and/or transgender characters. Gay or transgender figures are much rarer in films, and when they do appear in the likes of “The Imitation Game” or “Dallas Buyers’ Club,” they are played by straight actors.

All it takes, industry figures say, is one transformative figure. There was a hesitancy to back tentpole productions with African-American leads before Will Smith became a global star with “Independence Day.” The same could prove true for gay actors.

“It will change,” predicts Rob Epstein, director of “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “Lovelace.” “It has in just about every other sphere. This is the last frontier.”

More Film

  • Avengers: Endgame

    Box Office: 'Avengers: Endgame' Racks Up Massive $169 Million Globally

    “Avengers: Endgame” is barreling towards a record-eviscerating weekend after opening to a mighty $169 million in its initial day of global release. That heroic haul includes a $107.5 million debut in China, an $8.4 million launch in South Korea, a $7 million bow in Australia, and a $6 million day one in France. All in, [...]

  • Phyllida Lloyd’s ‘Herself’ Adds Cast, Cornerstone

    Phyllida Lloyd’s ‘Herself’ Adds Cast, Cornerstone Boards Sales (EXCLUSIVE)

    Cornerstone Films has boarded sales on “Herself,” the female-driven movie from “Mamma Mia!” and “The Iron Lady” helmer Phyllida Lloyd. Irish actor Clare Dunne, who starred in Lloyd’s all-female theater production of “Henry IV,” will play a single mother determined to build her own home with a free online plan, rebuilding her life in the [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    How the Avengers Became Such a Marvel in China

    “Avengers: Endgame” is on the fast track to becoming Hollywood’s most successful title ever in China, having already raked in RMB1 billion ($148 million) in just 45 hours – more than the Chinese earnings for “Wonder Woman” and “Once Upon a Deadpool” combined. It made as much in a single hour as the entire opening [...]

  • Todd Phillips

    Why Todd Phillips Keeps Coming Back to His Favorite DP, Lawrence Sher

    “That’s my guy Larry,” says director Todd Phillips upon learning that Variety has selected his favorite DP, Lawrence Sher, as a billion-dollar cinematographer. The duo have worked together on a half dozen films, including all three installments of the “Hangover” franchise, “Due Date,” “War Dogs” and the upcoming “Joker,” with Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De [...]

  • Lawrence Sher Cinematographer

    Cinematographer Lawrence Sher Shoots Smash Comedies and Big Blockbusters Alike

    For cinematographer Lawrence Sher, the focus has always been on the director. That philosophy has carried Sher’s imagery to millions of filmgoers, including his latest work set to hit screens this year: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” directed by Michael Dougherty, and “Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips, who has also collaborated with Sher on all [...]

  • Désirée Finnegan Named Screen Ireland Chief

    Warner Bros. Exec Désirée Finnegan Named Screen Ireland Chief

    Désirée Finnegan will be the new chief executive of Screen Ireland, replacing the outgoing James Hickey. Finnegan, who hails from Dublin, joins from Warner Bros. Pictures where she was SVP, theatrical marketing and publicity, and guided strategy for campaigns across the EMEA region. In a 15-year stint at the Hollywood studio she worked on campaigns [...]

  • James Bond Skyfall

    'Bond 25' Team Reveals Cast, Plot Details, but No Title

    James Bond’s next adventure will go untitled for a little longer. In a promotional video tied to the start of production on the upcoming 007 sequel, the filmmakers behind the movie unveiled the cast, confirmed that Oscar-winner Rami Malek will be the villain, but stopped short of sharing a moniker for the spy thriller. It [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content