History of LGBT: Actors and Actresses

Corey K Creekmur. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Gender and Sexuality as Performance

Until recently, homosexual and bisexual actors and actresses—both now commonly designated “actors”—were forced to hide their sexuality from the public and often from their employers and colleagues as well. However, considerable evidence suggests that the acting profession itself has long been unusually attractive and relatively receptive to LGBT people, who may have first found safe havens from homophobia in the creative communities of their school drama clubs. For professional actors, both the theater and film worlds have sustained informal circles of LGBT artists that serve as support networks and meeting grounds for creative collaborations as well as romantic liaisons. Recently, queer theorists have argued that gender itself is always a performance, and so the long-standing theatrical practices of cross-dressing and (its gay underground form) drag have come to represent only the most emphatic forms of gender play that otherwise characterize the behavioral acts signifying gender and sexual identities in everyday life. Perhaps because LGBT people have often had to conform by performing the straight roles society expects them to fulfill, the role-playing that is the actor’s craft begins early, or at least develops from a life that frequently demands the adoption of a public mask. More recently, uncloseted LGBT actors have finally been able to “play themselves,” representing the diversity of LGBT identities and experiences on stage and screen in works often created for them by openly LGBT writers and directors.

Recovering and Identifying LGBT Actors

Although recent film and theater historians have recovered a remarkable history of LGBT actors, it remains difficult and controversial to retroactively identify and thereby “out” earlier performers in terms of current contexts and definitions. The private lives of public figures were once more persistently hidden from audiences who, it was assumed, idealized film and stage stars as models of heterosexual masculinity and femininity (although comic actors could more often challenge normative gender and sexual traits since their lack of conventional masculine or feminine attributes was often central to their characters). Moreover, as many critics have argued, definitions of homosexuality and lesbianism are historical constructions, and current understandings of what defines a person as LGBT can only be applied to past lives with great caution.

But even if we cannot always know which actors were—or even now are—LGBT, this lack of certainty does not reduce the significance of many actors for LGBT audiences. One might then identify four categories of actors with relevance to LGBT culture: (1) actors known to be LGBT, through convincing evidence, from self-identification to accumulated confirmation from reliable sources;(2) actors presumed, often only through rumor or suggestion, to be LGBT, or to have at least enjoyed occasional same-sex experiences; (3) ostensibly straight actors who have, to positive or negative effect, played significant LGBT roles; and (4) ostensibly straight actors who have been especially popular among, or played a notable part in the cultural life of, LGBT fans. Choosing representative figures for each category—such as Rock Hudson (1), Jodie Foster (2), Tom Hanks (3), and Judy Garland (4)—suggests something of the range of ways in which diverse actors may interact with LGBT culture. And off the mainstream stage and screen, a distinctive series of performers, from female impersonators to queer performance artists, have radically extended the once limited boundaries of LGBT acting.

LGBT Actors on the American Stage

Historians of European theatrical traditions—long restricted by law or convention to male performers—have often noted the suspicion of sexual “deviance” attributed to actors, and antitheatrical Puritans in early America also raised questions about the troubling fact that many actors remained happily unmarried. The development of a theatrical star system in the early nineteenth century, however, drew attention to performers who were unique and often socially unconventional: fans allowed, indeed expected, such celebrities to lead atypical lives even if the explicit details of their sexual affairs remained discreet. Recent biographical studies of leading nineteenth-century theatrical figures such as Edwin Forrest (famous for playing the Roman slave Spartacus), Charlotte Cushman (most notable for her cross-dressed “breeches” roles, including Romeo, and for her legion of female fans), and Adah Isaacs Menken (notorious for her “nude” ride strapped to a horse in Mazeppa) have convincingly uncovered and respectfully treated the same-sex experiences that animated both the private lives and public careers of such stars. By the early twentieth century popular theatrical forms such as musical comedy, vaudeville, and the minstrel show regularly highlighted female and male impersonators, including Julian Eltinge, Bothwell Browne, “boy” impersonator Ella Wesner, and Francis Leon, a specialist in blackface “wench” roles. After World War I a number of prominent lesbian performers, such as Alla Nazimova, cross-dressing Elsie Janis, Eva Le Gallienne, and Tallulah Bankhead, were visible on Broadway and in musical comedies. In short, both the legitimate and popular theater commonly included actors flamboyantly “performing” gender dramatically and comically, in ways that suggestively challenged its presumed biological certainty offstage. Many of these actors also led unconventional, if semisecret, private lives, enjoying long-term romances as well as brief affairs with (often equally famous) partners of both or their own sexes.

Although legitimate theater became increasingly tolerant of gay playwrights (most prominently Tennessee Williams) and gay characters after World War II, LGBT actors necessarily remained closeted during this especially homophobic period, when homosexuality was conflated with communism, even if some actors were willing to reveal their own sexual identities among their peers. Prominent LGBT performers of the Cold War era include Owen Dodson (eventually more active as an innovative director), (perhaps) the musical star Mary Martin, and Sandy Dennis, the winner of two Tony awards and an Oscar in the 1960s. While the increased visibility of gay playwrights and characters on stage did not necessarily allow more openly LGBT actors (at least in starring roles), the post-Stonewall development of a range of explicitly LGBT performers and theatrical companies would soon radically revise the practices and possibilities of LGBT acting.

LGBT Actors in Hollywood

Although early cinema drew on prior theatrical traditions, it quickly developed new performance styles suitable for the camera, and within its first decades the film industry established its own star system to promote the public’s fascination with “picture personalities” and, eventually, movie stars. Unsurprisingly, some of these actors also led the unconventional sexual lives of their theatrical predecessors and peers, though the early film industry, desperate to establish its legitimacy among middle-class patrons, was even more concerned than the theatrical world to obscure the private lives of its players from public scrutiny. Eventually, the off-screen lives of the stars would emerge through studio-regulated gossip and the new fan magazines, but a number of prominent (and usually heterosexual) star scandals in the late 1920s led to Hollywood’s self-imposed Production Code in 1930, which banned the explicit display of homosexuality on screen (until a slight revision in 1961), while the studios policed their players with new “morality clauses” added to their binding contracts.

As with theater history, the history of LGBT Hollywood is still being recovered and written, and must also depend on rumors and personal accounts that, even when plausible or convincing, can probably never be verified. For every Hollywood actor, such as early male leads J. Warren Kerrigan, William Haines, and Roman Novarro, or the vamp Alla Nazimova, whose homosexuality, lesbianism, or bisexuality now appears evident, many more remain the subject of speculation. In such cases, the contemporary desire to locate and celebrate past role models must be balanced against respect for the wishes and economic necessity of those figures to have guarded their private lives. Rumors about the lesbian affairs of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Joan Crawford, for example, or the early gay affairs of male leads such as Cary Grant and Gary Cooper, have circulated for decades, but may always remain difficult to confirm: such uncertainty hardly counters the fascination and admiration such figures have persistently generated among LGBT viewers. In the face of official silence, gossip about stars, critics have argued, has played a necessary role in LGBT culture whether or not the rumors are verifiable.

Although the Production Code attempted to ban suggestions of homosexuality in films, a number of gay character actors, including Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, while embodying “sissy” and “pansy” stereotypes, kept queer characters on screen throughout the 1930s. Later, gay actors such as Clifton Webb and Monty Woolley played cultured, prissy queens in more prominent and dramatic roles. Lesbian character actors working in Hollywood included comic Patsy Kelly, Marjorie Main (best known as “Ma Kettle” in a popular series of comedies), British import Judith Anderson, and Agnes Moorehead, introduced into films via Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater troupe.

Curiously, gay actors again assumed lead roles in Hollywood following World War II, ironically during one of the nation’s and the film industry’s most conservative eras: while masculine icons such as Rock Hudson and Tyrone Power attracted large female followings, sensitive young men such as James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Sal Mineo (all known or widely rumored to be gay or bisexual) projected an ambiguity more in line with the findings of the controversial Kinsey report on male sexuality (and its famous scale of varying homosexual activity) published in 1948. Often gay or bisexual young actors, including John Dall and Farley Granger (co-stars of Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope), and Anthony Perkins (in Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho), played the implicitly gay and psychotic figures common to the last era to largely understand homosexuality as a psychological “problem.” However, the 1955 arrest of boy-next-door star Tab Hunter at a gay party challenged the era’s conventional assumptions linking homosexuality and neurosis. Although in retrospect Rock Hudson’s gayness may appear to have been evident, the eventual public revelation that the virile, muscular Hudson was a gay man (despite a brief, studio-imposed marriage to his agent’s secretary in 1955) forced a large number of the American public, who had never suspected Hudson’s homosexuality, to drastically reevaluate their trust in Hollywood’s representations of normative sexuality, and to perhaps finally abandon the lingering stereotype of gay men as sissies. After Hudson, it seemed, the public might believe that any actor could be gay—or, more tentatively, that being gay would not ruin a career.

Beginning in the late 1960s LGBT characters have been prominently, if often sensationally and even offensively, included in many popular films and television programs, although as with post-World War II theater, these gay roles have frequently been assumed by reassuringly straight actors. Straight actors who play gay characters are typically praised for their courage and daring, whereas actors who are openly gay or lesbian are rarely cast in straight roles, usually on the facile assumption that public knowledge of their sexuality will undermine their ability to convince audiences. Nevertheless, in recent years a number of film and television actors have sustained careers while affirming themselves to be gay or lesbian, including Rosie O’Donnell, Wilson Cruz (notable as a gay teen on My So-Called Life), Tom Hulce (Mozart in 1984’s Amadeus), Michael Jeter, Amanda Bearse, Alexis Arquette, outrageous comic Lea DeLaria, Mitchell Anderson (on Party of Five), and Dan Butler (ironically playing Frasier’s most aggressively straight character). Other popular television actors have come out in retirement or after their “media prime,” including Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Dick Sargent (Bewitched), Nancy Kulp (The Beverly Hillbillies), and Paul Lynde (perhaps American cinema’s queerest patriarch in the 1963 film Bye Bye Birdie).

LGBT and Queer Performance after Stonewall

Post-Stonewall liberation was accompanied by a remarkable flowering of openly LGBT experimentation in theater and performance, including the work appearing through such venues as Joe Cino’s legendary Caffe Cino, Doric Wilson’s theater company The Other Side of Silence, and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. The avant-garde film pioneer Jack Smith staged a series of campy and challenging one-man performances in New York City lofts, while a younger generation included outrageous drag-donning actor-playwrights Charles Busch and Harvey Fierstein (soon the winner of a Tony award for his Torch Song Trilogy) and the lesbian performers associated with the WOW Café, including Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, Holly Hughes, and Carmelita Tropicana (Alina Troyano), as well as the influential troupe Five Lesbian Brothers and the queer African American performance groups Pomo Afro Homos and Four Big Girls. Many of these performers were among the first artists lost to AIDS, while others would become central to the development of “new queer performance” often involving the delivery of searing or hilarious monologues. Other key queer performance artists include Tim Miller, Ron Vawter, Kate Bornstein, and Susan Miller. At the same time, the “new queer cinema” (although more frequently celebrated for its directors than actors) and the numerous forms of guerrilla and street theater enacted by prominent AIDS activist groups such as ACT UP and Queer Nation also extended queer performance into new and often risky cultural spaces.

Clearly, it is now possible for some LGBT actors (often moving between theater, film, and television) such as Nathan Lane, Lily Tomlin, and Harvey Fierstein, to proudly or subtly acknowledge their sexual identities and also thrive professionally. However, many well-known actors still remain closeted in order to obtain diverse roles, and some of the most prominent gay characters in recent films (Philadelphia) and television programs (Will and Grace) have been played by—the resulting press reassures nervous viewers—straight actors. In 1990 conservative politicians loudly attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for funding LGBT performance artists including Holly Hughes and Tim Miller, and unusual attention was given in 1997 to the coming out of both comic Ellen DeGeneres and her character on a prime-time sitcom, a network television program that was thereafter deemed “too gay” and canceled. Although it now seems evident that LGBT actors have been consistently vital to the history of American theater and cinema, their open visibility remains frustratingly partial and persistently contested.

Queer Reception

Recovering the history of LGBT actors and supporting current LGBT performers have been important tasks for queer audiences, scholars, and critics. As cultural analysts have emphasized, however, LGBT reception is not necessarily limited by the biographical “facts” that are known or unknown about specific stars. Dramatic Hollywood divas such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand, among others, have played prominent roles in gay camp as figures for both drag imitation and personal admiration and emulation. Notably independent film icons such as Garbo, Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, and Jodie Foster have played similar, if less campy, functions for many lesbian fans. Film scholar Michael De Angelis has persuasively demonstrated how gay fans have responded in complex ways to stars whose sexuality remains ambiguous (James Dean and Keanu Reeves) and even to a star who has seemed blatantly homophobic (Mel Gibson). As public figures and objects of fantasy, actors are therefore available to be actively recoded as well as queerly decoded by LGBT fans. It is certainly valuable for LGBT spectators to know that many of the figures on stage and screen, past and present, share their sexual orientation, but the significance actors have had and continue to have in LGBT culture and imaginations occupies a wider territory.