The Common Good
September-October 2001

Rock's Little Secret

by Danny Duncan Collum | September-October 2001

Rock has done the most to break down social conventions and cultural norms. So where are the gay rock stars?

As this is written, in early summer, a tempest still swirls in the tabloid teapot about the sexual orientation of film star Tom Cruise. Cruise has promised to sue anyone who publicly claims that he is gay. Let's assume Tom is straight; there is certainly no evidence to the contrary. But, as several commentators have noted, that still leaves the question of why, in the year 2001, the sexual orientation of a Hollywood leading man is such a big deal. Think about it. There are no openly gay male film stars. There are openly gay actors, but they are character and comic-relief types, not leading men. Italian actors can play Cubans, British actors can do Brooklyn accents, Anne Heche can live with a woman off-screen and play a straight heroine, but 15 years after the death of Rock Hudson the film industry still believes that the audience won't accept a gay actor in a conventional movie-hero part.

But then commercial films are an incredibly expensive product. When capitalist businessmen drop $200 million to make a story, we can expect that they won't take any unnecessary risks. That brings me to the next question. Where are the gay rock stars? This spring Michael Stipe of R.E.M. finally came out of the closet and called himself "a queer artist." But that crack in the wall was a long time coming. It's been almost 50 years since Little Richard was playing drag shows and the tough guys at Humes High were beating up Elvis because of his "sissy" looks. Little Richard, for his part, still hedges the question. There are important openly gay figures in dance music, and pop-meister Elton John is out, but the Presleyan cult of the electric guitar was thoroughly closeted until Stipe stepped out. Okay, there was Morrissey, formerly of The Smiths, who was a bona fide rock star in England, but not here.

We've had openly gay judges, members of Congress, and ambassadors. But the popular art form that has (for good and ill) done the most to break down social conventions and old cultural norms has been strangely hesitant on this one. In the 1970s, Lou Reed and David Bowie cultivated fashionably gay personae. But in the '80s they married women and claimed they were really straight all along. Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson scared two generations of parents to death. But they turned out to be straight in real life. Freddie Mercury (of Queen) wasn't outed until he died of AIDS. Pete Townsend has copped to bisexual activity but only decades after the fact. Once gay rock stars might have feared the wrath of the rock media, but now Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner is openly living with a man.

I SUSPECT THAT there are two contradictory forces keeping gay male rock stars in the closet. Rock thrives on that infantile state Freud labeled "polymorphous perversity." With the possible exceptions of Bo Diddley and Bruce Springsteen, all of the "great men" of rock history-from Presley to Jagger to Prince-have embodied a gender-bending, and even gender-transcending, sexuality. They have assumed a utopian stance that refused to recognize a fundamental distinction between what is male and what is female. That is the biggest part of rock music's subconscious, mythic, and even quasi-religious appeal. (The other part is its blurring of the American color line.)

But here's the contradiction. It's also true that the CD-buying public for guitar-based rock music is almost as straight, white, and male as the Republican Party. Gay artists have a real reason to fear homophobic rejection, or at least a dimming of enthusiasm, from the headbangers in the pit. Straight guys might accept "difference" in the public arena, at arms-length, but when it comes to our inner realm of dreams and visions, the things that touch us most deeply-whether it's our music, our movies, or our religion-the fear is still there. And no one is free or equal, or safe, until it is gone.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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