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Sunday Late Nite: Openly Closeted?

There’s a new type of closet for LGBT folks. This became a ticklish issue for the media with the death of mogul and game show producer Merv Griffin last week at 82. Pam Spaulding calls Merv openly closeted, an identity with which I was previously unfamiliar. And one I’m not sure should be perpetuated.

The controversy (“is Merv gay now that he’s dead?”) started when the Grey Lady broached the subject in Merv’s obit:

But he was also dogged by sex scandals and insinuations that he was gay. In 1991, he was sued by Denny Terrio, the host of “Dance Fever,” another show Mr. Griffin created, alleging sexual harassment. The same year, Brent Plott, a longtime employee who worked as a bodyguard, horse trainer and driver, filed a $200 million palimony lawsuit. Mr. Griffin characterized both lawsuits as extortion; ultimately, both suits were dismissed.

Mr. Griffin consistently evaded answering questions about his sexuality. In a 2005 interview with The New York Times, he said: “I tell everybody that I’m a quartre-sexual. I will do anything with anybody for a quarter.”

Ha, ha.

But not all media outlets were so clever in their assessment of Merv’s closet.

It started innocently enough with a story about late entertainer/talk show host Merv Griffin, who died this week, at The Hollywood Reporter’s web site. Its opening line: “Merv Griffin was gay.”

Then things got really interesting. The Reporter pulled the story — by regular Ray Richmond, who once worked for Merv — for awhile, then re-posted it under the heading, “Griffin never revealed man behind the curtain.” What next? Reuters picked it up in its normal entertainment feed and then, after protests (presumably), it pulled the story, with this explanation: “This was a story from The Hollywood Reporter that ran as part of a Reuters news feed. We have dropped the story from our entertainment news feed as it did not meet our standards for news. GBU Editor.”

Yahoo had run the story by this point with the headline, “Merv Griffin Died a Closeted Homosexual.” That’s pretty matter-of-fact. Why expect the world to become a more tolerant place just because you’re older and worth billions? Why not stay in the closet, or at a minimum, openly closeted? Who wouldn’t want to squire a Gabor sister around Hollywood? What’s the harm?

If you’re Griffin, why would you think a judgmental culture would be any more tolerant as you grew into middle and old age? Even in the capital of entertainment — in a business where homosexuality isn’t exactly a rare phenomenon — it’s still spoken of in hushed tones or, more often, not at all. And Merv’s brush with tabloid scandal no doubt only drove him further into the closet.

Michaelangelo Signorile starts with the big picture: this was one extremely well-connected mogul, with the capability to influence truly powerful people and (maybe) save lives.

First off, Griffin’s closet kept him shockingly silent while he had access to the president of the United States as his own people were dying. This man was intimate with the Reagans (and Nancy Reagan in particular) during the height of the AIDS epidemic in 80s, with few treatments available and fear-mongering having gripped the media. Griffin’s gay brothers — his friends, his lovers, his people across America, around the world — suffered and met horrific deaths. And yet, because he was closeted it is highly unlikely he ever made the connection for the Reagans (between himself and those who were suffering and dying), pointed out the government negligence, or even talked openly as a gay person. … He also stayed silent about the epidemic in the media — ironic since he was a man very much at the center of the media industry and in shaping communications and television in this country — when his voice would have made a huge difference.

Signorile then lets us know another dirty secret of the openly closeted. They use their workplace power to seek sex.

Secondly, Griffin’s closet had him engaging in workplace sexual harassment, something that, as I showed in my 1993 book Queer in America, is common among closeted powerful men, who often are simply seeking outlets for sex. That was not only focused on in the Denny Terrio lawsuit against Griffin but also was something that several Hollywood gay men told me about, offering first hand experience, while I was researching Queer in America back in the early 90s and some of this (though, for legal reasons not all) is reported on in the book.

Lastly — and this seems as sick as the first two twisted aspects of the open closet — openly gay people were not permitted to succeed within the business worlds Merv Griffin created.

Griffin’s closet had him firing gay men who’d actually made it up through the ranks of his own company, simply because they were openly gay. There is a story in Queer in America about a man identified as “The Mogul” who did just that. I can now reveal that The Mogul is Merv Griffin. Open homosexuality is a threat to the closeted, and powerful people in the closet like Merv Griffin will often do whatever it takes to squash those who are open and who might advocate that all among the powerful should come out.

The last certainly qualifies Merv for public outing under the hypocrisy rule. Any gay who hurts other gay people, or profits from their hurt, or politicizes their hurt, deserves outing.

Merv’s decision to “stay” in his closet, with its louvered, transparent, revolving doors, was certainly his own. It was his power and money, though, that kept Hollywood media complicit, legitimizing the open closet as an American institution in the twenty-first century. Commenter MAJeff at Pandagon explains the social invention that is the closet, whether open or not:

The closet is a social institution, it is a set of social practices. The news media actively construct this institution through their “inning” of celebrities, as well as through the construction of certain types of narratives, and employment practices, etc., etc.

The point is that the closet is not just an individual’s private life, as someone will inevitably argue. The closet is a set of social practices all based in the notion that homosexuality must be hidden in order to prop up heterosexual supremacy. The closet isn’t a right; it’s an oppressive institution that distorts the humanity and relationships of those forced to live in its confines.

The media needs to stop inning celebrities; outing is so twentieth-century. Our outrage needs to be directed at the inning. No more open closets! Closets, and the fictions that maintain them, kill.

Update: David Ehrenstein provides an insider’s perspective on Mervgate!

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