tv reporter

Knight, Harris outing a product of the times

If only Rock Hudson were alive today to meet Neil Patrick Harris or T.R. Knight. Were this silver-screen legend told that gay actors known for playing heterosexuals on television would one day issue headline-grabbing declarations of their sexual orientation, he probably would have had to see it to believe it.

The self-outing in recent months of Knight, of ABC hit drama "Grey's Anatomy," and Harris, of up-and-coming CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," seems evidence of how far Hollywood has come from the days of Hudson and Montgomery Clift, who remained closeted for fear of ruining their reputations during a less tolerant era. But I wonder whether they would consider this progress.

Television, by and large, has had a good track record with gays and lesbians in recent years. Gay-friendly programming has flourished to the point where, between "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "The L Word," homosexuality is practically a cliche. In addition, Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres have both proved that coming out was not the end of their careers.

The same will likely hold true for Harris and Knight. But don't let the cheery tone of their outing statements fool you into thinking they did this voluntarily. Both men were subjected to gossip-mongering on the Internet that has become so ubiquitous that it is virtually impossible for even a minor celebrity to ignore or keep his or her sexuality a secret anymore. An actor might not want to come out, but the truth still will.

Until relatively recently, agents and publicists could be counted on to keep clients closeted if they so chose. That just isn't feasible anymore in a culture where a celebrity's personal life is just another stage for mandatory performance.

Harris and Knight might appear to be challenging Hollywood's conventional wisdom that actors disclosing their homosexuality risk having their offscreen persona cloud audience perceptions of any roles they play onscreen. But a closer inspection of their current TV roles undercuts their significance.

Take Knight, for instance. As Dr. George O'Malley, he is practically one of the girls on "Grey's," playing a confidant not unlike Stanford, Carrie Bradshaw's gay best friend on "Sex and the City." Also, O'Malley's heterosexuality is evident only in its thwarted nature; he is bumbling his way through a budding relationship in the character's current story line.

Harris might represent a more interesting test case. On "Mother," he plays the lecherous lothario Barney Stinson, who rarely goes an episode without a physical display of his womanizing ways. Still, Harris doesn't have to be believably hetero here because "Mother" is a broad comedy and his role is essentially a caricature.

Neither Harris nor Knight is in the mold of the traditional leading man, and that's a huge distinction. That type of role is predicated on an actor's sex appeal to the opposite gender. Absurd as it sounds, on some level viewers have to believe the object of their affection could somehow reciprocate their attraction.

Just imagine if resident "Grey's" heartthrob Patrick Dempsey, who is not gay, had come out. Would McDreamy still be as popular, and would that affect the show's popularity?

Given the rapacious tabloid climate in which Hollywood operates, it is perhaps inevitable that a sexy lead actor will be outed. And if the disclosures of Harris and Knight seem like a big deal, just wait and see what happens when someone more like a modern-day Hudson follows in their footsteps.