In Defense of “Openly Gay”
Recently, at an Actor’s Roundtable sponsored by the Hollywood Reporter, a group of A-List actors (and 2024 Oscar hopefuls), including Robert Downey Jr., Colman Domingo, and Mark Ruffalo got together to have a conversation about…well, a lot of things. (It’s searchable on YouTube, if you’re curious.) During the meandering (but fascinating) conversation, Andrew Scott (who is getting a lot of buzz for his new romance-fantasy-drama All of Us Strangers) said this: “I’m going to make a pitch for getting rid of the expression ‘openly gay.’ It’s an expression that we only ever hear in the media. You are never at a party and say, ‘This is my openly gay friend.’ You never say it. Why do we put ‘openly’ in front of that adjective? You don’t say you’re openly Irish, you don’t say you’re openly left-handed.”
Scott’s comments have provoked a lot of conversation. Recently, I went back and forth with a few folks on Threads (Meta’s answer to X/Twitter) about the term and how we feel about it. Andrew, if you’re reading this, I’m a big fan, I loved you as Hot Priest in Fleabag and Moriarty in Sherlock, and I think you’re fabulous. But I also think you’re wrong.
But first, let me concede that you’re absolutely right when you say that I never use the phrase “openly gay” when introducing a friend at a party. I’d probably not even mention my friend was gay, because…weird.
But I do use the phrase in my writing, and I think it’s really important. When I’m writing about a gay person for a wide audience, I can’t be sure if everyone is aware of their sexuality, and if it’s germane to the topic, I might want to mention it. But I wouldn’t want anyone who reads my work to think that I’m trading in gossip or outing anyone against their will, and in that case, I might refer to them as “openly gay.”
Several of the commenters on Threads felt differently. They posited that if someone is out, we should just call them gay. And if they’re not out, we shouldn’t discuss it. And I agree, as far as that goes. But that’s not the culture we live in. Sadly, we live in a tabloid culture that in no way respects anyone’s privacy. A quick Google search conducted as I wrote this column yielded articles on whether Daniel Radcliffe, Taylor Swift, Jake Gyllenhaal, and a Real Housewife might be gay or bi or somewhere else on the rainbow.
Australian actress Rebel Wilson was outed by a newspaper in 2022, and Heartstopper star Kit Connor came out as bi after being harassed on social media by his “fans.” Speaking of which, we also live with a social media landscape where anyone with a smartphone can anonymously hurl invective at will, and if you’ve ever been the object of a virtual pile-on, it’s a strangely scary and unnerving thing. Writers and journalists, especially the ones who do respect the privacy of others, absolutely should do what they can to avoid an angry mob in their mentions accusing them of doing just the opposite.
For instance, if Colman Domingo wins an Oscar for Rustin this year, he will be the first openly gay actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. That will be something to celebrate. But even though he wouldn’t like the adverb, it simply wouldn’t be accurate to say that he’s the first gay actor to win that award. Charles Laughton won it, Kevin Spacey (ugh) won it, and Marlon Brando won it twice. We know these men were all queer, and it would be incorrect, and perhaps a tad disrespectful, to erase them from the conversation. But Scott’s win would be a new thing because he’s gay and everyone knows it, and that’s never happened before (#Justice4IanMcKellan).
Now, if it’s just the “openly” thing that bothers Scott and others because it sounds a little like we’re calling someone “flagrantly gay” or “hopelessly-in-your-face-about-it gay,” then I get it. Honestly, sometimes I just use the word “out” because it denotes a certain amount of pride, is factually correct, manages my intentions, and shortens my word count.
Sadly, we still live in a world where people choose the closet. And I bear them no ill will; some do it for career advancement, some do it to protect their physical safety, others do it so they won’t be disowned by their families. So long as we live in an imperfect world that punishes anyone for coming out, we have work to do. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when there’s just no good reason for anyone to be closeted any more. And when that time comes, perhaps we can retire “openly gay” for good.
Until then, you can just refer to me as “flagrantly gay.” I kind of like it.▼
Eric Peterson is Interim Managing Editor of Amble Press, a novelist (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth), and a diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner. In his spare time, he hosts a podcast, The Rewind Project.