In 1983, Ed Asner, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, spoke to the Golden Gate Business Association, a gay and lesbian business and professional organization. Asked about his advice to gay and lesbian folk not to come out of the closet in the entertainment industry, Asner replied, “Out of my own gut instinct, I [do] not consider this wise. I know that within the gay acting community itself, many of the agents who are aware of the conflict, the bind, the grief that occurs with actors who cannot proclaim their sexual preference, [know] there’s a lot of suffering and a desire to be open about it. And these agents and actors support me to a very large extent in advising non-publicization.”

“I think the most important thing is to keep acquiring the jobs, to keep acquiring the money, to become safe, if one wants to say it. If one wants to work towards a goal, if one wants to keep on working, is what I’m saying, then it’s not going to happen. Once one comes out of the closet, the world will strike out against the particular person who comes out of the closet. It’s as simple as that….

“If they wish to be sacrificial lambs, then it’s their business. But I think it’s wrong for the community as a whole to say it’s wrong to advise not to. I want these people to keep working. I want these people to, in a sense, keep fooling people to show that, ‘Where can you see me different from any other person in this guise?’ You never acquire enough strength to defeat the lie. Plus the fact that nine times out of 10, these people are portraying heterosexuals. Do you want them to play the nonexistent homosexual roles once they come out of the closet?… That’s exactly what they’d be relegated to.” (Thanks to Randy Alfred, longtime San Francisco journalist, for the quotations, which come from his “Dateline SF” column of April 8, 1983.)

Given that Asner’s comments were made about two years before Rock Hudson fell out of his closet into the grave, it was hardly surprising that his outlook was so pessimistic. But it’s not clear that things have changed much in the decades since. I wonder how the president of SAG would answer the same question today. We are waiting for Branch Rickey as well as Jackie Robinson.

It may be that it’s no safer for an ambitious young actor to be openly gay in Hollywood today than it would have been for a ranch hand in Wyoming in 1963, even if the threat is career suicide rather than more literally lethal.

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