Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that President Obama referred to gay Americans in his inaugural address. He did so in his election night address in Chicago's Grant Park.

Aaron Hicklin -- American Idol and American Sexuality

By Aaron Hicklin
Sunday, May 24, 2009

How did a somewhat goofy, family-style talent show on Fox become a bellwether of America's changing attitudes toward sexuality?

Adam Lambert, a gutsy eye-liner-wearing Californian with a big voice, did not triumph in the eighth season of American Idol. Would he have won if he were unequivocally straight? That is a question we'll be debating for a while. But in many ways, Lambert was the unofficial winner long before he took the stage last Wednesday to recap his plaintive version of "Mad World," the Tears for Fears ballad that cemented his reputation as the darling of alternative, androgynous goth-ish tweens. His clean-cut, evangelical Christian rival, Kris Allen, on the other hand, was more "High School Musical" than "Twilight."

One hundred million votes were cast in last week's Idol finale, and though it's premature to interpret Lambert's loss as a referendum on tolerance, his flamboyant persona marked a striking departure from the heterosexual bluffing of 2003 Idol contestant Clay Aiken. While it took Aiken years to come out (he did so last September), Lambert never felt the need to pander to conservative audiences. Although he never came right out and said "I'm gay," his response to photos of him in drag and kissing other men -- "I have nothing to hide, I am who I am" -- was clear enough, and more eloquent by far.

In the age of "Brokeback Mountain" and Ellen Degeneres, why does Lambert's sexuality make a difference? That's a reasonable question. But pop music, infused with sex and central to adolescence, counts for more than indie films and talk shows. It's among the broadest gauges of popular attitudes. Comparisons between Lambert and Freddie Mercury, the former lead singer of Queen, were premised on his cocksure performance and swooping falsetto, but the pop idols of Mercury's era -- Elton John, George Michael, Mercury himself -- were closeted at the height of their careers for good reason. We might have guessed that they were gay, but we didn't want to be told.

Today, we're increasingly comfortable with homosexuality, yet the closet still retains a surprising hold on Hollywood and Washington that seems out of step with changing attitudes. Gays do very well on reality TV and as affectionate punch lines on sitcoms such as "Will & Grace," but where are the out gay action stars and leading men? British writer Carol Ann Duffy, the first lesbian (and woman) to be anointed the UK's poet laureate had a good sense of the public mood when she told the Times of London, "I think we've all grown up over the past ten years. Sexuality is now celebrated. It is a lovely, ordinary, normal thing." A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a dramatic rise in support for gay marriage. Nearly half of all Americans in the new poll said they favor legal marriage for same-sex couples, an increase of 13 percentage points since June 2006.

Against those shifting attitudes, the resurfacing of Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher-- who told Christianity Today last month that he won't allow "queers" near his children -- feels comically out of touch rather than menacing. Even his mentor, John McCain, may be softening, to judge from the comments of his daughter Meghan. In an upcoming interview with Out, Ms. McCain draws a solid line between new school Republicans such as herself, who believe in gay marriage, and old schoolers like Wurzelbacher, whom she dismisses as "a dumbass."

With a new president who seems more fair-minded than his predecessors, the miserable practice of using gay equality as a recruitment tool in the conservative heartlands is hopefully coming to an end. A string of victories for gay-marriage proponents in Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire has reinforced the momentum and fueled optimism that California and New York will not be too far behind. And while talk of a lesbian nominee for the Supreme Court may be fanciful, the fact that it's even being discussed by court-watchers is a mark of how quickly the landscape is changing. It now seems incredible that as recently as 1986 the Supreme Court could have upheld the right of a state to arrest a man in the privacy of his own home for consenting homosexual conduct.

That was the same year in which President Ronald Reagan first brought himself to use the word "AIDS" -- five years and 11,000 deaths after the virus was first identified in the United States. In "Outrage," Kirby Dick's new documentary on closeted politicians, the Reagan years get critical treatment, as well they should. The 1980s represent a high-water mark of hypocrisy when it comes to discrimination against gay men and women, in which politicians such as Larry Craig -- who famously "bumped" feet with an undercover officer in a bathroom stall in 2007 -- are portrayed as both victim and perpetrator.

Two years ago, when Out magazine made the decision to launch its Power 50 list of the most influential gay men and women, our cover featured models holding up masks of Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster above the words "The Glass Closet." The denunciations were loudest and swiftest from gays themselves. "Maybe Jodie Foster wants to be known as the woman who has had four Oscar nominations, rather than as a lesbian actress," said the editor of a rival gay glossy, as if those two things were mutually exclusive. Although nothing we said was new -- the Washington Blade, among others, had been there before us -- we were seen as having crossed a line.

Two years later, however, that line is yielding. This year's Power 50 list has just been published, and while it continues to include several men who take pains to present themselves as straight for mainstream audiences, the reaction to it has changed. Even the addition of blogger Matt Drudge elicited little more than an amused shrug. It's as if with the arrival of a new president -- the first to include gays and lesbians in his inaugural address -- we're finally bored with the whole pantomime of who is and who isn't gay.

And yet, not entirely. When movie critic Nathan Lee filed his review of "Outrage" for NPR recently, he was outraged in turn by the edited version, which removed names of political figures depicted in the movie, including, oddly, Sen. Larry Craig. NPR portrayed its decision as respect for the privacy of public figures, a standard response that highlights the distinction we continue to make between homosexuality, which the media only ever implies, and heterosexuality, which is always assumed. After all, only a culture that considers homosexuality somehow shameful would consider it prurient or slanderous to call someone gay.

Thirty years ago Harvey Milk challenged gay Americans to come out "and let that world know [for] it would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine." Yet the closet still retains a dismal hold on Hollywood that contradicts "Milk" star Sean Penn's "You Commie, homo-loving sons of guns" Oscar speech this year. How many publicists and agents in the audience that night -- ones that I have dealt with -- are complicit in keeping that closet shut tight? Or have pitched me straight celebrities with the insulting caveat not to make them "look gay" (special mention for the publicist, who -- as we were putting her actor into a pair of pajamas for a photo shoot -- shrieked, "No sleepwear, not in a gay magazine!").

The continued existence of the closet needs to be challenged, not only by a new generation of Adam Lamberts but also by those still trapped inside. While it's legitimate to fear being pigeonholed by your sexuality, power is only partly about how others see us; it's also about how we see ourselves. Or, as actress Kelly McGillis said in a coming-out interview with Shewired earlier this month, "life is a freaking journey, and it's about growing and changing, and coming to terms with who and what you are."

Aaron Hicklin is the editor of Out magazine.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company