Gillian Flynn
October 06, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Being closeted today is a joke. Really.

Let’s face it: We sling rumors and witticisms about stars we believe (or want to believe) are gay with little thought at all. Speculation about who Is or Isn’t in Hollywood has become a parlor game, and it’s only gotten more persistent. About 10 years ago, a small group of people sniggered over stars’ rumored hamsterphilia — among themselves. Today HBO’s Sex and the City can use the phrase ”heading to Ricky Martin-ville” as a euphemism for being gay — even though Martin has talked publicly about girlfriends and refused to comment on the rumors. Meanwhile Kevin Spacey’s Oscar date, who has been described as his longtime girlfriend, ends up a national wink-nudge punchline. Whether they’re gay or not, when did this get to be everyone’s business?

”The difference between Rock Hudson and a star today who’s not out of the closet is [with Hudson] Hollywood knew, no one else outside Hollywood knew,” says Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for GLAAD. ”Today, Hollywood knows — and there’s a smattering of knowledge across the country about men and women who are closeted.”

And that knowledge — or guesswork — is increasing, thanks to a classic strange-bedfellows alliance of gossips, comedians, tabloids, and gay activists who believe that gay celebs have a responsibility to come out. It’s such open season on the subject that Rosie O’Donnell (a frequent target of rumors) and Nathan Lane can banter about having ”beards” on camera at this year’s Tony Awards. More importantly, how did we get to the point where O’Donnell feels free to make an off-camera joke about Spacey’s sexual preference to 6,000 Tony attendees?

Some contend that speculation about everyone from Tom Cruise to Tinky Winky is just the latest iteration of old-fashioned finger pointing. ”I find it appalling … Shouldn’t somebody be able to have a personal life?” says Kenn Viselman, chairman of Teletubbies marketer The itsy bitsy Entertainment Co. ”Rupert Everett is like, ‘I don’t care, I’m a homo!’ If you choose to discuss that, it’s perfectly fine. But if Kevin Spacey decides to bring his mother to the [Oscars], don’t suggest that’s because he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s got a boyfriend.”

But others consider the needling a sign that the gay rights movement has reached a crucial comfort zone. ”Being gay in pop culture is a lot more accepted,” says actor Mitchell Anderson (Party of Five). ”We’re able to laugh about it. Rosie joking about Kevin Spacey is a little racy, and maybe it’s an invasion of privacy — but it shows a little more maturity [of the movement].”

”I love the gay humor — I love that tension,” says Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. ”The more there’s that discussion, the less [being gay] can be vilified in ways that result in violence or destruction of identity.”

Given that even stars dogged the most by rumors are currently laughing all the way to the bank, very few people (except the occasional panicky publicist) are willing to advance the old this-could-destroy-their-careers argument; in fact, some consider the jokes a public service. ”Anything that gets out there to a mass audience provides a great platform for discussion,” Seomin says. ”Somebody struggling with their sexuality who’s watching Sex and the City with their friends and wondering, Do I come out?, can say, ‘She just talked about that singer we’ve all wondered about — what do you guys think?”’

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