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Critic's Notebook

In with the out crowd

Gay actors have found an unexpected place to come out: television

From left: CNN anchor Don Lemon (Reggie Anderson), MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (Charles Sykes/SYKEC, via Associated Press), and 'How I Met Your Mother' star Neil Patrick Harris (AP Photo/Reed Saxon) From left: CNN anchor Don Lemon (Reggie Anderson), MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (Charles Sykes/SYKEC, via Associated Press), and "How I Met Your Mother" star Neil Patrick Harris (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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In a cover story for Entertainment Weekly last month, Neil Patrick Harris wrote about surviving in show business and bypassing the curse of the child star. The Hollywood overachiever, who plays the neurotic womanizer Barney on “How I Met Your Mother,’’ mentioned coming out as gay to the public in 2006. “I must say,’’ he wrote, “the indifference that most people expressed was the greatest reaction of all - and a reflection of a nicely evolving culture.’’

Is Harris just a lucky exception as an openly gay actor who works steadily in the mainstream, or is he right about our culture? Almost 15 years after Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, it looks as though Harris is really onto something - something about the culture of TV.

There certainly is a growing indifference about seeing openly gay actors in this country, but only on the small screen. In the movies, Hollywood still operates under a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, with rumors of closeted stars hiring PR agents to construct straight hookups for them in the tabloids. Television, on the other hand, has become a far more frank environment, a place where openly gay actors are finding lots of work - and not just playing gay characters.

DeGeneres and Harris are the oft-cited examples, along with Jane Lynch and Chris Colfer of “Glee.’’ But there are many, many others right now, including Linda Hunt of “NCIS: LA,’’ John Benjamin Hickey and Cynthia Nixon (as a couple) of “The Big C,’’ John Barrowman of “Torchwood,’’ Jesse Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family,’’ Denis O’Hare of “American Horror Story’’ and “True Blood,’’ Cheyenne Jackson of “30 Rock’’ and “Glee,’’ Cherry Jones of “24’’ and the forthcoming “Awake,’’ and Alan Cumming of “The Good Wife’’ (he’s bisexual but in a gay marriage).

Watch groups are always counting the numbers of gay characters on TV - Fox currently features the most, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) - but few appear to be taking note of this new break in ground. Other out TV-ish names: Sean Hayes, BD Wong, Portia De Rossi, Wilson Cruz, Bill Brochtrup, Lily Tomlin, David Hyde Pierce, Wanda Sykes, Bryan Batt, and T.R. Knight. Last month, while starring in the now-canceled “Playboy Club’’ on NBC, “Firefly’’ alum Sean Maher came out. He took the leap that out actor James Duke Mason (son of Belinda Carlisle, grandson of James Mason) is encouraging with his “Trailblazer’’ campaign to get actors out of the closet. If the public can buy Annette Bening as a gay, the logic goes, surely they can now buy Maher as straight.

Why has this wave of openness hit TV? You’d think that, since TV comes into our homes every day, since it has a more intimate relationship with viewers, it might be more vulnerable to pockets of viewer disapproval.

But the TV business is a more flexible testing ground than the movies. TV moves fast; there are more shows in production than movies, more roles available.

And TV viewers generally haven’t paid for a ticket. “When you pay 11 to 13 dollars, you’re voting about what you believe in,’’ says casting director Sharon Bialy of Bialy/Thomas Casting, whose credits include “Breaking Bad’’ and “The Walking Dead.’’ And you can’t change the channel in a movie theater; you’re more of a hostage. “If you’re uncomfortable’’ about seeing a gay performer on your TV, Bialy says, “you can just get up and go to the kitchen.’’

Many stay on the couch and watch, though. Out actor Brad Calcaterra teaches an acting class at the Studio in New York focusing on sexual identity, and he says he sees more actors wanting to come out because they see so many out actors working on TV. “If you can tune in and see Neil Patrick Harris or see Chris Colfer on ‘Glee,’ you can start imagining a place for yourself.’’ He also says that stereotypical gender distinctions are blurring culturally, so they’re not as defining as they once were: “With younger people, you can’t always pick out who is gay in the casting room. You’ve got gay-acting people who aren’t gay and the other way around!’’

According to Bialy, TV is also more welcoming to openly gay actors because they are usually part of an ensemble. “There aren’t many openly gay actors who are leads on TV,’’ she says. And TV shows - especially network shows - tend to capitalize less explicitly on characters’ sexuality than the movies.

“You can get away with three seasons on a TV show and never introduce the idea of lovemaking,’’ says Bialy. “But you’re gonna go there in 90 percent of your movies. And I don’t think America is ready to make that leap. From Rock Hudson on, gay movie actors have been hiding their sexual preference. . . . Your star meter is tied up with sex appeal, more so in movies than on television.’’

The reason TV has opened its doors to gay actors also transcends these important business aspects. The massive world of TV is dense with real images of life as it is lived; it doesn’t traffic as steadily in iconography as the movies. If movies are dreams, TV is more like a stream of consciousness stretching out over time, especially when you think of the 24-hour news channels. Gay people are all over TV in a nonfictional context, not just in news reports but on reality and talk shows.

The list of openly gay anchors and hosts is long, and it includes DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Sara Gilbert of “The Talk,’’ Rachel Maddow, Graham Norton, Don Lemon of CNN, Nate Berkus, and Andy Cohen of Bravo. Likewise, openly gay reality figures from Pedro Zamora of “The Real World’’ to the men of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’’ and Tim Gunn on “Project Runway’’ are everywhere. Indeed, reality shows have been pivotal in ushering openly gay people into the public eye, since they are inexpensive, low-risk ventures that thrive on conflict among people.

With this huge gay presence in nonfictional contexts, TV has become a less secretive, more revealing place than the movies. It’s where the matter of sexual orientation is slowly but surely becoming less important in terms of a performer’s career. When T.R. Knight came out during his stint on “Grey’s Anatomy’’ in 2006, he said, “I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me.’’ His wish may be inching closer to reality.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.