LGBTQ icons including Wanda Sykes, Jim Parsons, Rosie O’Donnell, Anderson Cooper and more recall the fears, funny moments and ultimate triumphs of telling the industry (and the world) who they really are: "I was scared to death."
For any LGBTQ person, there is no bigger game-changer than coming out. It's a rite of passage equal parts terrifying and liberating — and all the more so when you do it in the public eye. For its first Pride issue, THR turns to some of the most famous faces to have ever emerged from the Hollywood closet to learn what they were thinking before, during and after the biggest decision of their lives. Some came charging; others did it more tentatively. They span generations — the youngest, Josie Totah, is 18; the oldest, Richard Chamberlain, is 86. Their stories are vastly different, shaped as much by their own lives as the eras in which they came out. (What once required a People cover declaration can now be slipped into a tweet.) But what's common throughout is that each of these stories — some told here for the first time — made it that much easier for LGBTQ people keenly watching and listening to follow in their footsteps.
THE BAD OLD DAYS: "IT JUST WASN'T AN OPTION"
RICHARD CHAMBERLAIN, ACTOR, 86 Growing up in the '30s, '40s and '50s, being gay was not an option. It just wasn't. So one pretended to be not gay. One pretended to be a regular person. And I spent a great deal of my life pretending to be a regular person.
RUPERT EVERETT, ACTOR, 61 At age 16 or 17, I hit the discos and the clubs. And this was the '70s, so it was the time of Studio 54, and it seemed in those clubs, underneath the glitter ball, that there was an incredibly liberal world. But graduating into a world like the cinema was completely different. It took me ages to understand that being gay wasn't quite acceptable there.
CHAMBERLAIN Being a kind of romantic leading man, I thought being gay would be a disaster for me careerwise. And so I had not only this feeling that there was something wrong with me, which I got from the childhood experiences, but that it would have been the end of my acting career.
ROBIN TYLER, COMEDIAN/ACTIVIST, 78 I read this article in 1959: "If you are a woman who loves another woman, what you are is a lesbian." It was by [early lesbian activists] Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. So because I read this one piece of literature, I came out.
WANDA SYKES, COMEDIAN/ACTOR, 56 I knew that something was different back when I was in the second or third grade and I crushed on teachers. Then one of my older brother's girlfriends, I had a crush on her. I said something to her, and she was like, "Oh no, no, no, no, that's wrong, you don't think like that and don't say that again." I was like, "Oh, OK — so this is different."
HARVEY FIERSTEIN, ACTOR/ PLAYWRIGHT, 65 When I was a little kid, I knew I was attracted to men. It never occurred to me to hide who I was.
CHAMBERLAIN I had a few dalliances. I tried to be very discreet about it. Nobody cautioned me against it, and I didn't talk about it. But the town has great gaydar. Within the business, it was not a big secret. But the press was very discreet back then — the fan magazines and all that. They didn't push it.
TYLER My comedy duo Harrison and Tyler [with my late partner Patti Harrison] opened [the 1978 ABC comedy special] The Krofft Comedy Hour. Well, [singer and LGBTQ rights opponent] Anita Bryant was in the news at the time, and I did a line, "She even quit the church because the choir insisted on singing, 'Go Down Moses.' " The next day the national news says, "Avowed lesbian Robin Tyler takes on Anita Bryant." They couldn't call you a lesbian; they called you an "avowed lesbian." You had to sign in blood you were a lesbian. It was a big deal. After that, ABC did not pick up our [development] contract.
THE '80s: "THERE WAS A REAL FEELING OF BEING OSTRACIZED"
NEIL PATRICK HARRIS, ACTOR, 46 I lived in L.A. in the '70s and '80s, so West Hollywood was kind of the beacon of [gay life]. I was terrified of Club Rage and being seen there. I was terrified of Oil Can Harry's in the valley. Every time I'd drive by it, I was just perplexed and would never have stepped foot in there, but I wondered what was happening inside.
FIERSTEIN When Torch Song Trilogy won the Tony for best play in 1983, my producer, John Glines, thanked his lover in his speech. The following year I was nominated again for writing La Cage aux Folles. A producer of the Tonys said, "And please no one repeat the embarrassment of last year." When I won, I got up and I thanked "my lover, Scott, for typing scripts and blah-blah-blah," which he really didn't do. But I had to thank him just to show them.
VICTOR GARBER, ACTOR, 71 Ian McKellen and I had dinner one night, and it was just around the time he had come out [in 1988]. He told me I had to come out. And it really resonated with me. But I didn't have the courage to do it until I was older.
FIERSTEIN I used to say if you want to know if somebody is gay, just look to see if there is a photograph of me with them — because if there is a photograph of me with them, they're not gay because people in the closet would not be photographed with me. Richard Chamberlain wouldn't go out on the street with me. Well I don't really know that's true. I didn't ask him out. But I had two dinners with Rock Hudson, and we did not go to the restaurant together.
EVERETT At first, it all seemed rather effortless. But then things got harder. AIDS happened. So our profile from the late '70s to the early '80s changed radically. AIDS put the gay movement back a lot because people were terrified of us. And you suddenly got into scenarios where you go to people's houses and you see them washing your plates in a different sink. There was a real feeling of being ostracized.
GARBER After playing Jesus in Godspell, the director, David Greene, said, "I'd like you to play Liberace [in 1988's Liberace: Behind the Music]." There were some people who thought it wasn't a good move [because Liberace had just died of AIDS], but I didn't care. There was no question that I was going to do it. But I didn't work in TV for years after that.
THE '90s: "HOW DOES IT FEEL BEING GAY?"
CYNTHIA NIXON, ACTOR/ACTIVIST, 54 I had always dated men. I had a boyfriend for 15 years. I remember on Sex and the City, we had an episode about bisexuality and "does bisexuality exist." They quizzed us all, and I was like, "Totally." The idea of being attracted to a woman or falling in love with a woman or having sex with a woman always seemed completely within the realm of possibility — it just had never happened to me.
ANDY COHEN, TALK SHOW HOST/ PRODUCER, 51 I was at CBS News from 1990 to 2000. My first job was a desk assistant at the morning show, and my last job was senior producer of the morning show. All of the gay guys at CBS News — and there were plenty — they were mainly all closeted. I was one of the very few out gay men, or women, at CBS.
CHAZ BONO, ACTOR, 51 My mom [Cher] had a hard time both times I came out to her. When I came out [as gay in 1995], she kind of had an explosion — and then it was pretty much over. It was less of a big deal for my dad [Sonny Bono]. But [coming out as trans in 2008] was much harder for her. It just took time. There was no religious reasons or disapproval or whatever; it was just this sense of loss. That eventually went away.
ROSIE O'DONNELL, TALK SHOW HOST/COMEDIAN/ACTRESS, 58 When I took the job [to host The Rosie O'Donnell Show], I told the executives at Warner Bros. that I was gay. It was a big meeting at a big corporate table with 20 seats on each side. I said, "Before you invest $5 million in me, I want you to know you're getting someone who's a lesbian in a time when being a lesbian could hurt your commerce." They all said, "Do you imagine you're going to come out?" I said, "I can't even imagine it." This was 1995 or '96, so nobody was out.
EVERETT There was no coming out for me, really. I never made a statement to anybody or anything. But when I did My Best Friend's Wedding in 1997 [playing the gay friend of Julia Roberts' character], it was a moment for me. I suddenly got tons of jobs and tons of offers, and it was extraordinary. The press was very interested and curious. But looking back, the trouble was that I couldn't do anything else. I wasn't asked about anything except for, "How does it feel being gay?"
THE EARLY 2000s: "SCARED ENOUGH NOT TO TALK ABOUT IT"
LANCE BASS, SINGER/PRODUCER, 41 At the height of NSYNC, I was scared shitless. The bigger we got, the more people are looking into your personal lives. I always knew I was gay. Five years old, I knew I was gay, but I also knew that it was something I'd have to hide the rest of my life because my Southern Baptist upbringing told me that.
CLAY AIKEN, SINGER/ACTIVIST, 41 I think America knew I was gay before I did. I grew up in the South in an era when either you were out because you were very obviously gay or you were closeted. And I know I ain't nobody's lumberjack, but I wasn't quite as — whatever that is, you know?
JIM PARSONS, ACTOR, 47 I was 33 when I started doing The Big Bang Theory [in 2007], and things started to become much higher-profile very quickly. So I wasn't some spring chicken. But I hadn't grown up even close to the era we are in now, as far as what it meant to tell somebody you were gay. I think it's undeniably different than it was 20 years ago.
BASS I didn't want anyone to find out because I knew, especially in the year 2000, that if anyone found out that I was gay, NSYNC's career would be completely over, and these guys would hate me for the rest of my life.
ANDERSON COOPER, JOURNALIST, 52 I certainly wish I had come out sooner for a variety of reasons. For me, the biggest coming-out was when I came out to my friends and my family back in high school, and to my mom right after college. But then the public coming-out was obviously another big step, which took me a long time to reconcile.
ZACHARY QUINTO, ACTOR, 42 I came of age during that time when the prevailing thought was that an openly gay person couldn't have as successful or flourishing a career. I think I'm sort of one of the last generations for whom that's true. I was very much of the mind-set that I had to keep these two realities separate.
PARSONS So I was scared. I wasn't scared about losing my job. And I wasn't scared to the point of denying my sexuality. But I was scared enough to make it my mission not to talk about it. I was scared enough to be nervous the first time I was even nominated for the Emmy. And I was scared that it might cause trouble, quote unquote, for our big television show.
SYKES I was always viewed as a "gay ally." You know. "She's so supportive of the community." It wasn't until I started dating Alex [in 2006], who's my wife now, when I think my material became more personal and I started talking more about relationships and equality.
BASS In the band, I told Joey [Fatone] first, but I didn't really have to tell him. He walked in on me [in 2004] with my boyfriend on my lap. Normal straight dudes don't sit on guys' laps as they're typing on the computer, so it was very obvious to him.
COOPER I did read stories about me [not being out] on Gawker, and I felt it was always pretty snide. But I certainly heard the criticism and understood the arguments about it and intellectually understood it. I just felt like as a reporter, it just felt antithetical to what my job is supposed to be.
MATT BOMER, ACTOR, 42 [Coming out] was very intimidating at the time because I'd already experienced some fallout in my career just by living openly. I do remember from certain [handlers] a certain sense of — not disappointment but like, "OK, let's see if this has any repercussions with jobs."
BASS The guys are still so pissed that I wasn't able to tell them when we were still a group. One, they absolutely don't care about me being gay. The thing that pissed them off the most is they thought that we could've had so much more fun together at the height of NSYNC. I could've been my real self with them, and they wish they could've had that.
AIKEN Coming to L.A. for American Idol [in 2003] was the first time I ever met anyone else who was gay who didn't come across as gay. I remember meeting some of these people who worked on the show, worked backstage and thinking, "Oh, wait, hell, he's gay? Shit, well, maybe I am too."
BOMER I was the director's choice on what was called Superman: Flyby [in 2002]. Brett Ratner was directing it and J.J. Abrams had written the script. That went all the way to a screen test and a three-picture deal they'd put together. I don't think [Ratner] did know [that I was gay] when I auditioned. He must have known at some point. I don't think he cared — but that's not to say that there weren't people who did. Then the project slowly fell apart …
CHAMBERLAIN I was about 69 years old [in 2003], and it was almost as if an angel walked into the room — there was, of course, no angel there, at least not visibly — and put her hand on my head and said, "You know something, Richard? This whole thing about the negative side of being gay is total bullshit." This wonderful holy being said, "It's the most benign fact about you."
NIXON [Now-wife] Christine [Marinoni] and I were dating for a few weeks [in 2002], and we got a press inquiry about it. I had never had a publicist, so they got me to hire somebody who I will not name who has represented a number of LGBT people who never come out. They managed to kill the story.
AIKEN A crewmember on Idol was the very first guy whom I ever came out to. I mean, I came out to him but mostly because I was kissing him. Then I came out to [third-place season two Idol finisher] Kimberley Locke one night.
HARRIS This was at the height of the Perez Hilton gossip blog-centric era. Blind items. I had gone out of my way in interviews to be gender neutral in the way I would answer questions. If an interviewer would ask me where would you go on your perfect date, I would be gender-neutral intentionally so that I didn't feel like I was saying something that was not truthful.
COOPER To me, the final straw really was the idea that there would be some kid out there or anybody out there who thought I was unhappy being gay or that I was somehow trying to hide it, which was not the case.
AIKEN Literally 10 minutes after the American Idol finale, we go out to this press tent. Ruben [Studdard] gets the first question. The second question's for Clay. My fucking luck it was somebody from Out magazine, and the very first question I got on that stage was, "Clay, are you gay?" I remember just sort of ignoring it. But in that moment I realized, "Fuck — don't trust any of these reporters."
HARRIS There was an interview [in 2006] that claimed that I was asked if I was gay and that my publicist had said that I was "not of that persuasion." That was the weird catalyst tipping point because that expression set Perez Hilton off. He was offended by that and then started posting about me and asking people to come forward with truths or stories. Then it became apparent that I needed to make some sort of decisive respectable move.
NIXON Months started to pass, and we kept saying, "Well, what's the next stage of this?" And the publicist just kept saying, "Your private life is your own." So, basically, we fired him. Then I won the Emmy [in 2004], and people started asking more. By this time my manager kind of had figured things out better and she went to [publicist] Kelly Bush. I explained the whole situation, and she said, "Why don't we just confirm?" It was like somebody telling you there's a Santa Claus.
BASS I went to Provincetown with some friends [in 2006]. I didn't know it was a predominantly gay town. I'm not wearing a hat or glasses or anything, and I'm sitting there at Crown & Anchor talking to a guy, waiting for the bathroom. He's like, "Wait, you're Lance, right?" "Yeah." He goes, "Wait, so you're gay?" It was the first time I'd told a stranger, "Yeah, I'm gay. " He was like, "Aw, that's so cool." I had the best weekend. When I got back from the vacation is when all the magazines started calling because the guy I was talking to in line was a reporter for The Washington Post. I knew that I needed to choose one outlet to tell my real story, so that's when we went with People. Literally, the day before the magazine hit the stands is when I was doing the photo shoot, doing the interview. It all happened within 48 hours of coming back from that vacation. Talk about a Band-Aid being ripped off very publicly.
AIKEN There came a point around 2009 or 2010 where it stopped being that big a deal, but until then, it was. I mean, it was a huge deal when Lance Bass came out. He was brave as fuck for doing it. And I am not going to say I was brave, but that is the time when my publicist and my manager finally said to me, "You've got to do it now." My People cover came out [in 2008], and I did Good Morning America that morning. I was in Spamalot on Broadway at the time and was terrified I was going to get booed. But I didn't get booed.
SYKES It was the national day of protest for Prop 8 [in 2008], and I was performing in Vegas that weekend, and we went to the rally in front of the LGBTQ Center. So I'm out in the crowd, and the speaker goes, "We have someone in the audience who's a strong ally of the community and I hate to put her on the spot …" And I'm looking around in the crowd thinking, "Is Drew Barrymore out here?" And then when she said, "Wanda Sykes, would you come up?" I was like, "Oh, oh me. OK — she thinks I'm an ally. No, I'm the community!" So I go up, and I just said what was in my heart, and next thing I know I get back to the hotel room and it was on the CNN scroll.
THE 2010s: "I SORT OF JUST TOOK THE BACK DOOR OUT"
QUINTO It was in 2010, actually, when I did Angels in America at the Signature Theatre in New York that I really started to look at the crossroads of my personal and professional and public selves. There were a spate of teenage suicides that year. A lot of young LGBT kids were killing themselves because of how seriously they were bullied. This was around the time that Dan Savage started the It Gets Better campaign. I actually made an It Gets Better video in 2010, before I came out.
JILL SOLOWAY, FILMMAKER/SHOWRUNNER/ACTIVIST, 54 The first kind of big moment for me was when my parent came out, and I just felt a lot of walls crumbling around what I thought I had understood about myself. I'd always seen my life as kind of a feminist who was really angry. I wasn't even gay yet. I was just really bad at being straight.
PARSONS I was doing an interview [in 2012] the summer after I had been in The Normal Heart on Broadway. I was doing Harvey in New York, and I was interviewed by Patrick Healy of The New York Times. I can't remember the exact question, but he asked about something to the effect of, "Was it more meaningful to be a part of The Normal Heart being gay?" I said yes. I remember leaving there going, well, I sort of just took the back door out, as it were. I remember thinking it was kind of poetically perfect.
BOMER I was receiving an award from the amazing Diahann Carroll [in 2012] and just thanked my family in the speech. There were offers to do magazine covers and things like that, and that just didn't really interest me. I wanted there to be almost a lack of fanfare about it. I didn't think it was going to get the sort of play that it did. I didn't imagine that I would say "thank you" in an award ceremony in Palm Springs and that it would be on the CNN ticker. … They love to throw it on that CNN ticker, don't they?
GARBER I did come out inadvertently. This happened in an interview in Pasadena. I think it was after the Golden Globes in 2013 after Argo. And this guy was interviewing me, and he said, "How long have you been together with [your husband] Rainer [Andreesen]?" And I said, "Oh, we've been together a number of years" and didn't really think about it. And Rainer was on a ski lift in Aspen and said he got like 40 texts and he nearly fell out of his chairlift. He said, "I guess you're outed now."
COOPER I didn't really want to make it seem like I was doing this in any way for any kind of public attention. So I didn't want to be on the cover of a magazine — not that there's anything wrong with that. I respected Andrew Sullivan's website a lot. I thought it was very influential and just a really smart, interesting place. And [in 2012] I thought, "Oh, you know what? I'll do this."
QUINTO There was a man named Jamey Rodemeyer who took his own life. And shortly after, it came to light that he had made an It Gets Better video just a few months previous. That was the moment of reconciliation in myself beyond which I couldn't any longer live this life of opportunity and creativity and freedom and success and not acknowledge, in a meaningful public way, my authentic self. It was 2011, and I was doing press for a film that I produced and starred in called Margin Call. And I just made the decision to come out publicly in an interview, in a profile they were doing of me in New York magazine.
HARRIS It was pretty much no big deal. I'm not sure if I should be offended by that, as if no one cared, or whether it was such a great indicator that our society has shifted so much. There were no "God Hates Fags" signs on my front lawn. There were no people shouting things as I walked anywhere. It was just another piece of incidental information in the non-sort of lives of celebrity people.
COOPER I didn't think coming out would change anything in my life because I felt like my life was already pretty out. But it really did. It changed things tremendously — just the sort of walking into a room and having that all on the table ahead of time. Which is something I didn't really look forward to. I mean, it's kind of a strange thing to walk into a room and have people know your sexual orientation and everything about you before you've even said anything.
PARSONS It got picked up, and it was briefly a thing just as far as like there was some news to it or whatever, but it faded away pretty damn quickly and was kind of not a big deal. The big deal for me came in the weeks and months after that. Once it was out officially, I felt a sense of ownership over it, and that was very new to me, and I felt like a more participatory member of the community. That was and still is to varying degrees elating to me.
SOLOWAY I met some nonbinary people on the set of Transparent [in 2015] who were neither "he" nor "she" — they were using "they" pronouns. Then I was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross [in 2017] and felt less like I had this urge to come out singing from the mountaintops and more like I wasn't being authentic if I didn't tell people that the "she/her" pronouns made me feel strange. This is actually what I feel like: That I'm neither and both and either and always changing.
TODAY: "THE BRAVE STEP FORWARD"
O'DONNELL First you get the "Hey, You're Gay" Award, and they give it to you in some form, whether it's GLSEN or one of the great gay groups. Then the next person comes out, and then you get to send them a "Hey, You're Gay" Award.
NIXON I think the first award that I got was from GLAAD. It was such a big deal for me. But I remember I presented them with my speech ahead of time, and they came back with rewrites to my script. … I had a line in it where I said, "I've been straight and I've been gay — and gay is better." And they took the line out. I was like, "First of all, you can't take that out — that's a huge laugh line and that's a huge empowerment moment for this room."
BASS I told the story how my close friends would always joke around and call me a "SAG," as in straight-acting gay. I got so much shit from that. Some very prominent LGBT people ripped me a new asshole in public.
HARRIS I've learned that the queer community is very individual. What one group of people define as normal queer culture is very different from what another group of people may define as their version of normal queer culture. All I was able to do is make some sort of statement that was respectful of [husband] David [Burtka], that was respectful of the query, and then to keep on trucking.
JOSIE TOTAH, ACTRESS, 18 I never had a coming out per se, to my family. Ever since I was 5 years old — or I guess as early as I can remember, I might have been 3 when I told my family that I felt that I was a girl — and so it wasn't, like me sitting anyone down and telling them.
ANTONI POROWSKI, TV HOST, 36 I don't take any offense to being referred to as being gay, but that's not how I typically refer to myself. Because I've gone from men to women and back and forth again — even though I've dated men for the past nine years now. I've always kind of referred to myself as fluid.
COHEN In terms of [LGBTQ] exposure, I think what's going on in Hollywood is great — every color of the rainbow is represented in scenes. In terms of people's reaction, we're in a moment in time where me and Anderson Cooper co-host New Year's Eve on CNN. We both have kids. This is wild. But I think in terms of people's attitudes, there's always room to grow. We have a vice president who believes in conversion therapy.
POROWSKI Not once during the [Queer Eye] audition process [in 2017] did they ask me, like, "What was your relationship past like? Like, who you dated. Tell us about the guys. Were there any girls?" There was none of that mentioned at all. I remember some of the producers were really surprised after episode four of season one when I shared that I'd actually been with more women than men. They were all just kind of like, "Oh, wow, we didn't know that about you."
TOTAH It wasn't until the day before I started my freshman year of college that I had posted an article — an essay that I had written for Time magazine basically telling the world that I had known and my friends and family had known my entire life. Just telling them, like, this is now. I'm transitioning and I'm going to take this leap.
HARRIS [Coming out] wasn't simple for me, but I tried to represent myself well. I just think everyone needs to be proud of who they are. If you want to be super crazy, wonderfully flamboyant, wearing dresses to work and dancing in heels every day, you should. If your version of being gay in Hollywood means that you have a very personal, private life and you don't want your personal life to be a reflection of your professional life, you should. We need to practice tolerance as best as we can.
PARSONS It makes me more sad and frustrated for anybody who is still in the closet or feels that they can't be free about who they are. I know firsthand that you can't know the strength that comes to your aid until you take the brave step forward. It's like that old quote, "Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid."
This story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.