To Out or Not to Out: Tabs Keep Rumors Away From Public

Rock Hudson. Cary Grant. James Dean. Laurence Olivier. Danny Kaye.

They were all leading men during some of the golden years of Hollywood, and they often played dashing, romantic men over whom women swooned.

The celebrity press fawned over their every relationship with young starlets, sophisticated beauties and Tinseltown actresses, and dedicated reams of paper to hinting at what kinds of lovers they'd be to the bored housewives who lapped up the gossip.

What they press never mentioned was the industry chatter: that the handsome actors may have been gay.

Fast forward to the present day, and things are a lot different — or are they?

The rumor mill's churning out more stories about supposedly closeted celebrities than ever before, but the tabloids seem even more ginger about the subject than they were back in the glamour days of Hollywood.

Aside from the occasional snide, wink-wink caption under a photograph of a star and his or her same-sex "companion" or "personal assistant," the celebrity press is increasingly careful not to name names.

Star magazine, known for its sometimes questionable inside scoop on celebrities' personal lives, even went out and made it official when Editor Bonnie Fuller (search) recently said that the periodical would no longer out closeted homosexuals.

"I don't believe there's still an appetite out there for that kind of information," American Media (search) spokesman Stu Zakim said in response to a call to Fuller. "It's something we're not doing. I think there's been a mass change in acceptance of people's sexuality, so that it's really irrelevant to their celebrity status.

"People come to pick up Star magazine because they want the latest in celebrity news in who's going out with whom — whether boy or girl — who's wearing what to the events. Star presents breaking news first, and we do not consider people's sexual preference news. It's private, period."

Naturally, the fear of losing media access is a large concern. In addition, publications want to avoid costly lawsuits. Now, highly paid actors can afford to bankroll powerful lawyers to safeguard their privacy instead of relying on the kind of "gentlemen's agreement" that kept the press from revealing too much about certain open secrets, like politicians' or celebrities' sex lives or, as with Franklin D. Roosevelt, handicaps.

Today, big-name celebrities who have been the subject of homosexuality rumors, such as Tom Cruise (search), have been aggressive in pursuing legal remedies or, as with Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford, in even buying up advertising space in national newspapers to counter allegations of sham marriages.

Fuller's decision to nix the tattle-telling on stars' homosexual behavior may have been influenced by the fact that Star has been forced to apologize for a September 2004 article in which the magazine claimed that a British pop-music star had sex with another man in a dance club.

"It's very legally tricky to call someone a homosexual in a periodical," Radar magazine Associate Editor Danielle Stein said. "It's still very easy to win a lawsuit for something that's considered defamatory."

Several thorny issues crop up when respecting a celebrity's privacy in regard to his or her homosexuality, but not in regard to other aspects of his or her private life.

Why should a gay celebrity get to enjoy a tryst with a same-sex lover in private, when a heterosexual celebrity can't enjoy the same protection? Why are miscarriages, health issues and other intimate details of a person's life considered fair game, but others not? And are all closeted homosexuals equal in the eyes of the tabloid press or the public?

"I don't think a tabloid forcing someone out is a good thing. I view coming out as a personal choice," said Howard Bragman, a Los Angeles-based public-relations specialist, University of Southern California professor and gay-rights activist.

Stein, who hasn't taken a side in the to-out-or-not-to-out debate, points out that treating gays and lesbians with kid gloves could actually be helping to stigmatize them.

"Journalists always debate things like naming rape victims, and I think some ways it's akin to that. Some say that by not naming the rape victim we are maintaining the stigma that attaches to the rape victim — being raped isn't the victim's fault, but it's a bad thing. And being gay isn't a bad thing but we treat it like it is."

Whether or not Star or other magazines publish details about a gay star's sex life, there will always be a market for them, many say.

Paul Cunningham, a New York-based photographer who's taken many candid pictures of celebrities but prefers not to use the term "paparazzo," said that while he respects the privacy of anyone's sex life, business is business for many photographers.

"If one magazine's not going to run it, someone else will," he said.