Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Arthur Answers, Part One: Who knew?

It’s time to start answering this round of “Ask Arthur” questions, and I thought I’d start with one that I actually received months ago. There’s still plenty of time to ask your own questions, too, by the way.

Today’s question is from Roger Green who asked last April:

“OK, that suggests an Ask Arthur Anything question: When you were growing up, what did you think of performers who were THOUGHT to be gay, but weren't out (because almost no one was out), such as Liberace and Paul Lynde?”

The simple answer is that it never occurred to me that people like Liberace and Lynde were gay. They said they weren’t, and I took them at their word. Mind you, I was quite young in the 1960s, and not fully grasping the realities of sexuality and identity.

By the 1970s, things were changing. Elton John said he was bisexual, and David Bowie more or less did, too. Even Daryl Hall & John Oates were in on the act, and Billboard magazine said of the cover of their 1975 album called, oddly enough, Daryl Hall & John Oates, that they were adopting a playful bisexual look, whatever that meant.

The thing is, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I ever heard of an openly gay recording artist (and for me, everything changed then). Up until that point, I can’t remember even thinking that a recording artist might be gay because I was so used to there being none.

The same is true for actors. It wasn’t just that I took performers at their word, but also that there were no openly gay actors when I was a kid or young adult, so I just assumed there was no such thing as a gay actor. I was also totally unaware that the campy performances of Lynde, Liberace, and others, were anything other than a performance style.

By the time I was a teenager, and more aware of the world, I used to sometimes wish some performers were gay, but I assumed none of them were (and, far more often than not, I was right). So, even then, I didn’t think any performers were secretly gay.

Even so, I do remember one actor who I thought was gay, and that was Nancy Kulp, who is most famous for playing Miss Jane Hathaway on the 1960s hit TV show, The Beverley Hillbillies. To this day, I have NO idea why I thought that: As a kid, I didn’t even know what the word “lesbian” meant, and her character was more or less an “old maid”, and I knew some of those in my dad’s church without ever thinking they might like the ladies. And yet, I had a sort of intuition about her that I can’t remember having about any other actor, male or female.

Now, because there was no such thing as an openly gay performer in the 1960s, and I’m not entirely sure I even understood what that would’ve meant, anyway, I just thought Nancy Kulp was funny. Many years later when I heard she was out, I did sort of think, “I knew it!”, but I didn’t hold her earlier closetedness against her.

But, then, I didn’t hold clostedness against any of the performers I saw growing up and didn’t, at the time, know were gay, finding out later that they were (like George Takei, Jim Nabors, Johnny Mathis, and, apparently, Barry Manilow, for example). Some of them I at least suspected were gay when I became an adult, but they’re all much older than me and I didn’t try and project my values onto them and others of their generation.

So, while I was growing up, there were no openly LGBT performers, so I didn’t know LGBT people could even be performers of any kind, so it never occurred to me that any of them could secretly be LGBT. I completely bought the narrative and beliefs of the dominant culture, and it wasn’t until later in my teens and early 20s that I realised I’d been lied to.

Things are WAY different now, and obviously for the better, with openly gay performers all over the place. I wonder, though, if young gay kids these days still imagine that cartoon characters are secretly boyfriends, like I hoped Jonny Quest and Hadji were. Do kids even need to imagine such things any more?

There’s still time to ask questions! Here’s how: First, you can leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are okay). You can also email me your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). And, for the first time, you can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page.


rogerogreen said...

I just happened to catch this Behind the Music thing with Hall & Oates, who were glammed up by this French cover artist, and they went with it.

Sandra Newton said...

Why did you 'wish' some performers were gay? Not meaning to be confrontational, but what does a performer's (or anyone else for that matter) sexual orientation matter to whether you like what they do/sing etc?

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

It wasn't about liking them as a performer or not, but just about seeing my life and my reality reflected. As a kid, and later, as a closeted teen, I longed to see positive images that I could relate to, and there were none. While I was a pretty strong and resilient kid, it would have been enormously helpful to have such positive images.

When there started to be openly gay performers of various sorts, I went through a period where I liked them a little bit more because they were gay—I revelled in finally seeing my reality reflected. But that was about people I knew were gay, not ones I wished were.

There was another category of performers I might wish to be gay, and those were the guys I fancied when I was growing up. But that had nothing to do with liking them as a performer, and everything to do with just plain old fancying them.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

It was the times…

rogerogreen said...

Sandra - here's a comparable: when I was growing up, our family always noted all the black folks on TV, Greg Morris in Mission: Impossible, Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek, Gail Fisher in Mannix and especially Bill Cosby in I Spy and Diahann Carroll in Julia, because there just weren't that many of "us" out there.

DaChieftain said...

Remember too, Arthur, the context of the times. We are of a similar vintage, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. What had just finished happening in the US, during that time...?

YUP. The McCarthy Era -- during which time it was highly prejudicial to one's career to be unconventional or deemed "Un-American" in any sense of that word. The mood of the times was such that McCarthy-style witch-hunts could easily recur, given the right circumstances. People would have been walking on eggshells, because many careers and lives were wrecked by the McCarthy hearings.

(Purely by coincidence, McCarthy was right: Hollywood *was* thoroughly infiltrated by communists at the time. But that was beside the point. The End seldom justifies The Means, Utilitarian Ethics notwithstanding.)

And who was the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation? YUP -- J Edgar Hoover (himself a closet homosexualist), a thoroughly nasty piece of work who kept files on all sorts of people he considered to be undesirables and subversives -- whether they had committed any actual crimes or not.

People actually do forget the context of the times, and think that life today is like it was back then. America back then bears very little resemblance to America today. Look at all the HUGE social movements that have swept thru during our lifetimes.

McCarthy and Hoover's malevolent influences would have had a dampening effect on anybody "coming out of the closet" back then, Arthur. That is why we never heard about them. The cost was way too hi, and the recency of these events too fresh in people's minds.