For celebrities, an off-screen journey to on-screen equality

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Gio Benitez
Gio Benitez

LGBT History month series

ABC News correspondent Gio Benitez says that as a young reporter in Miami, he was inspired by the greats of television journalism: Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Barbara Walters and Katie Couric. He didn’t seek out gay role models in the media, “because at the time I was very conflicted about it myself.”

Gio Benitez and Tommy get engaged
Gio Benitez and Tommy get engaged. Photos by Pierre Torset

“I thought that if anybody found out, that I would never be able to do this work,” says Benitez, 33. “Even a local reporter who was my friend at the time said to me, ‘Oh, you can’t be gay and successful in the news.’ He was around my age. That always stuck with me for a bit, but I ultimately said, ‘You know what? I can’t deal with this.’ And everyone at ABC was so supportive from the very beginning.”

Benitez began his TV news career as a 17-year-old high school intern at WFOR, the CBS-owned station in Miami. Eventually a weekend anchor, he left the station for ABC in 2012.

A rising network star, Benitez never had an official coming out. Then, on Sept. 17, 2015 in Paris, he got down on his knee and proposed to boyfriend Tommy DiDario, an on-air lifestyle expert. The couple posted the pictures on social media.

“I hadn’t sent anything out that said, ‘Hey I’m gay and I’m coming out!’ I just posted this photo because it meant so much to me,” says Benitez, whose 2016 wedding to DiDario was covered by People magazine. “All these network executives were calling me. The president of Disney-ABC Television called me while we were in Paris to congratulate.

But LGBTQ media people couldn’t be out in years past

“So I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh. All these ideas that I had about success in the media and being out, they were just wrong.’ Obviously not wrong at another time in history, perhaps. But in this moment in time, I was wrong about it.”

Not long ago, however, an LGBTQ media celebrity couldn’t be safely out. Actor and author Bryan Batt, who co-starred in the 1995 gay comedy film Jeffrey and a decade ago in the popular TV series Mad Men, says that as recently as the 1990s, an agent warned him not to come out if he wanted to work as a mainstream actor.

“I remember during Jeffrey, it was a very big decision. I finally said to myself, ‘No look, I have to pretend on stage for a living, I’m not going to pretend in life.” Being out actually helped win Batt the role of Sal, a closeted ad agency art director on Mad Men, a drama set in early 1960s New York City.

“I remember Matthew Weiner, who as the creator of Mad Men, saying to me that he was very happy when he found out that I was gay. And he wanted to cast a gay man in this role. He didn’t want to fake it, which I found very, very refreshing.

“From the pilot, I had a line when we were in the strip club, and one of the girls said, ‘Oh, I love this place. It’s smoky, private, hot, full of men.’ And I went, ‘Me, too!’ There was just a little giveaway.

“Basically, Matt told me, ‘I want it to be very clear to today’s audience that he is gay, but to the 1960 world that he’s in, they can’t detect it.’”

Batt, 56, recently wrote and is performing a one-man show, Dear Mr. Williams, about the iconic gay playwright Tennessee Williams.

Through the late 1960s, there was virtually no LGBTQ representation in the mass media, although some supporting characters’ sexuality was inferred—usually as prissy, fussy men and tough, bitter women. The barriers came down slowly and by the early 1970s, theater, film and television began approaching homosexuality more directly and not just for laughs.

Mart Crowley’s 1968 Off-Broadway hit The Boys in the Band depicted a group of gay friends at a birthday party in a funny, sad, bitchy drama that translated onscreen two years later with its original cast. Actors Jon Voight and Bob Balaban had an on-screen sexual encounter in the Oscar-winning 1970 Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy. And Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen played a same-sex couple in the 1972 made-for-TV drama, That Certain Summer, in which Holbrook’s divorced character comes out to his teenage son.

In 1975, wholesome Brady Bunch dad Robert Reed (gay and closeted in real life) played a male middle-age doctor who transitions in a two-part storyline on CBS’s Medical Center. The season-opening episodes were titled, “The Fourth Sex.”

About the same time, TV sitcoms also began regularly including gay characters, the acknowledged first being a somewhat forgotten 1972 ABC summer replacement series called The Corner Bar. 1977 is considered a breakthrough year: Linda Gray (the future Sue Ellen Ewing in CBS’s Dallas” played TV’s first transgender character in a Norman Lear syndicated comedy, All That Glitters; and young Billy Crystal played an out gay lead in ABC’s hit sitcom Soap.

In 1982, Michael Ontkean, Kate Jackson and Harry Hamlin starred in the 20th Century Fox film Making Love, about a doctor (Ontkean) who leaves his wife (Jackson) for a sexy gay novelist (Hamlin). The film is perhaps best remembered for Ontkean and Hamlin’s big on-screen kiss—which drove some shocked audience members straight out of theaters.

When Making Love came out on DVD decades later, Hamlin, who had since become a TV star in the mid-1980s NBC series L.A. Law, told the Miami Herald that the gay role ruined his chance to become a big movie star.

“I can’t say it more emphatically—playing that part ended my feature-film career,” Hamlin said in 2006, the same year that Brokeback Mountain earned Oscar nominations for screen lovers Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Before the days of Pose, Queer Eye and RuPaul’s Drag Race, very few out LGBTQ celebrities had widespread national visibility.

Robin Tyler, 77, a veteran lesbian activist and comic, was among the first to perform in mainstream clubs, records and television during the 1960s and ‘70s. “The gay men were always our biggest fans,” she says, joking, “because the lesbians hadn’t discovered humor then.”

The Canadian-born Tyler says that when she started in show business, there were few gay role models. “I ended up going on stage to start telling my story. There was nobody to imitate. I talked about how to come out. All that kind of stuff. I made an album called Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Groom, which is now in the Smithsonian as the first out gay or lesbian—GLBTQIAA whatever—comedy album.”

In 1978, Tyler and her then-lover and performing partner Pat Harrison appeared on ABC’s The Krofft Comedy Hour. This was a year after conservative singer and Florida orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant successfully led a national campaign to repeal Miami-Dade County’s human rights ordinance.

“I was doing rallies against Anita Bryant and I said something like, ‘Anita Bryant is to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art.’ The news caught it: ‘Avowed lesbian Robin Tyler—you couldn’t be a lesbian, you had to swear, you had to sign it in blood—avowed lesbian Robin Tyler tells a joke about Anita Bryant.’”

Tyler’s mainstream TV bookings dried up. “Everyone always said to us, ‘Wasn’t that terrible? You could have been a big star.’ And here’s what I said: ‘I was thrilled because it was embarrassing to go on and do those little sketches, and to be a fan of Lenny Bruce or the Smothers Brothers or Richard Pryor, and to all of a sudden to be made a sweet little girl, I absolutely hated it.”

Instead, Tyler got involved in gay theater, working in New York with John Glines—who himself made history in 1983 when he won the Tony for producing the original Broadway production of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and thanked his “partner and lover” on national television.

Tyler—who with late wife Diane Olson were the original plaintiffs in the 2004 California gay marriage lawsuit and the first same-sex couple to legally marry in the state four years later—believes young queer people today don’t know much about their history. “We’re a group of people that survived mental institutions, penal institutions, behavior modification. We lost our families by coming out, our parents, we got our children taken away. Science called us sick, religion called us sinful,” she says.

Jazz Jennings, arguably the world’s best-known trans teen, disagrees that younger LGBTQ people are ignorant of the movement’s past. “In this new age of technology, I would say that most queer young people are pretty knowledgeable about Stonewall and LGBTQ+ history. “Especially with the recent 50th anniversary, I think a lot more people are recognizing the roles that trans women played in kickstarting the Gay Liberation Movement, specifically Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy,” says Jennings, a reality TV star who names trans actress Laverne Cox as her professional role model.

Jennings says “young people are creating a new history just by existing as who they are. In this modern world being LGBTQ+ is a struggle, and by living as their authentic selves, queer young people are starting a movement of increased awareness and inclusivity.”

Jennings is 18. Tyler, who is 59 years older, believes much of what young people are being taught about LGBTQ history is distorted by Hollywood and the media.

Tyler says she participated in the second night of protests at Stonewall Inn after the June 28, 1969, New York City police raid and remembers things differently.

“Let me assure you, it was 93 percent, 94 percent gay men. Young gay men,” Tyler says. “To rewrite it as any kind of history that it wasn’t, and there were a ton of white gay men, to rewrite the history and to leave them out in order to be politically correct is really very wrong.”

She’s also angry that everyone seems to know Harvey Milk, but not the groundbreaking activists who preceded him. “Why do we need one hero? Why do we need one Harvey Milk?,” Tyler says. “When you take one person and you think they’re the epitome of the movement and you forget [Metropolitan Community Church founder] Troy Perry or [1950s activist] Frank Kameny of Mattachine, all of a sudden it sucks the air out of the room.”

Who was the first on TV?

Tyler, who admires fellow comedians Ellen DeGeneres and Lily Tomlin, also carries some personal resentment. “The one thing I want to say—the only thing that bothers me—is when somebody like Lea DeLaria says she was the first on television, and then Rosie O’Donnell keeps thanking her for being the first on television. I finally tried to contact Rosie and say Lea wasn’t the first, I was.”

Americans picked Ellen DeGeneres as the favorite communicator of LGBT equality in 2019
Americans picked Ellen DeGeneres as the favorite communicator of LGBT equality in 2019

1997 was a watershed year in our history, when the first major media celebrity (DeGeneres) officially came out on the April 14 cover of Time magazine: “Yep, I’m gay.”

At the same time, DeGeneres’ character on her popular ABC sitcom Ellen, also came out, adding to the media frenzy.

DeGeneres began preparing the public for her announcement months before, including an appearance on O’Donnell’s hit daytime talk show, where she told TV fans they would soon learn the Ellen character is “Lebanese.”

O’Donnell, who publicly came out in 2002, then teased DeGeneres: “Maybe I’m Lebanese.”

Added DeGeneres: “Half of Hollywood is Lebanese.”

Out comedian Judy Gold, who won 1998 and ’99 Daytime Emmy awards for her work on Rosie, recalls the DeGeneres-O’Donnell “Lebanese” exchange as spontaneous, not scripted.

“It was just brilliant and it was a turning point,” recalls Gold, 56. “The beginning of everyone coming out.

“You can’t imagine, it’s only 22 years ago and how much it could destroy your career. They were easing in. Think about it: Daytime is way more restrictive than nighttime talk shows. It was so great to hear in the community, ‘Hey, did you see that?’ It was just fucking ‘Go girl!’ You just wanted to prop them up and say thank you.”

Judy Gold
Judy Gold

Gold, who has two sons, ages 22 and 17, says she publicly came out because of her children. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, I have so much material. Everyone talks about their families and, look, I was kind of happy about it. “You can’t be a great comedian if you’re lying. The only thing that’s funny is truth.

“I think back to the people who were out onstage: Bob Smith. He was my best friend. He was the first openly gay comedian on the Tonight show. His coming out joke was so brilliant.

He said he made a carefully worded announcement at Thanksgiving. “I said to my mother, ‘Would you please pass the gravy to a homosexual.” She passed it to my father.’

“It’s so non-threatening,” Gold says, “it’s so not-in-your-face. And he looked like Jimmy Stewart. He was all-American, handsome, brave and brilliant.”

Smith died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2018. His New York Times obituary was headlined, “Bob Smith, Groundbreaking Gay Comedian, Is Dead at 59.”

In 1997, the year Smith wrote his comedic memoir, Openly Bob, he told the Miami Herald he didn’t like being considered a gay role model. “Everyone who comes out is a role model. But I don’t want to be a role model for the whole gay community. We’re too diverse,” he said.

Before his 1994 Tonight appearance, host Jay Leno asked if he wanted to be introduced “as a gay comedian.”

“I said, ‘No, you don’t introduce someone as a Jewish comedian,’” Smith recalled.

Gold’s Jewish identity, however, is also part of her act. Her Twitter handle: @JewdyGold.

She tours regularly, hosts a weekly podcast called Kill Me Now and is writing a book to be published in 2020, Yes I Can Say That: And F*ck U If U Can’t Take a Joke, about freedom of speech from a comedian’s perspective.

Gold often clashes with young LGBTQ activists. She says there is a definite gay generation gap. Recalling a recent experience at one of her concerts she commented, “There was a very young couple, two women, in the audience and I said, ‘Oh, are you two lesbians?’ They said ‘no.’ I said, ‘Wait, so you’re a couple, but you’re not lesbians?’”

One of the young women told Gold, “No, we’re queer.”

“And I said, ‘You know what, you’re welcome. And you don’t get to change the name.’ The older—my generation people—started clapping.”

Gold says she recently lost a job because she’s not politically correct. “I have been canceled from a gig because I do a transgender joke—as I do a lesbian joke, a gay joke, I talk about my kids, my girlfriend, everything. I talk about EVERYTHING!”

Many young LGBTQ people have no sense of “context and intent” and have no clue “where is this person coming from? What has this person done in their life?” Gold says.

“I have spent my entire adult life as an activist as someone who is a huge part of the community, fighting for equality, living with dignity, marriage equality. And you’re canceling me from a gig?” she says. “You wouldn’t be talking about these issues if it wasn’t for so many people before you.”