When Star Trek’s latest Spock, Zachary Quinto, came out of the closet last weekend, it struck me that there are a lot of prominent geek actors who also happen to be gay. In the older generation, you’ve got Ian McKellen — who’s played two iconic characters, Magneto and Gandalf, and sports the awesome shirt above — and the original Star Trek’s George Takei. Neil Patrick Harris (Dr. Horrible), John Barrowman (Torchwood), and Sean Maher (Firefly) are all out. And while he denies the rumors, Hugh Jackman’s (X-Men’s Wolverine) sexual orientaton is under constant scrutiny despite having been married to his wife for more than 15 years.
Do you know why I was surprised to come up with so many well-known actors? Because in the geek community, sexuality seems to be a non-issue. I have to believe it’s because a group that’s used to being marginalized is much more welcoming of alternative lifestyles. According to at least one self-described geek, I’m on the right track.
“A lot of it comes out of acceptance,” according to my friend Clinton, a gamer, LARPer, anime fan, and lawyer (not all in that order). “Both communities are marginalized and stereotyped, and the idea of being labeled can be kind of scary.” But rather than shy away, these actors face those labels head-on. “There are all the pressures to be ‘mainstream’ and here are established actors saying, ‘You know what? I’m gay. I’m a geek. Deal with it.’”
By contrast, mainstream fans have more difficulty understanding their leading men as anything less than a role model for pumped-up machisimo. Here’s a perfect example of this revulsion, an anecdote that will always stick in my mind: During one performance while Hugh Jackman was starring in The Boy From Oz in 2003-2004, right before he leaned in to kiss his male co-star, he heard someone in the audience shout, “Don’t do it, Wolverine!”
Straight men feel that their masculinity is somehow threatened, like with the theatergoer who couldn’t envision Jackman as anything but the snarling, slashing, hairy mutant. Geeks don’t have to go through that same reimagining because their idols were never those ideals to begin with. The men I listed above don’t fit the conventional ideal of gritty, brawny action stars. And yet, they’re successful in their field! So already, these actors know that they’re never going to fit into the cookie-cutter mold that mainstream audiences expect. Perhaps, then, it gives them greater confidence to come out, knowing they’re already welcomed.
It’s interesting to note that Neil Patrick Harris came out about two years before Dr. Horrible. He was forced to out himself after a gossip site noticed his partner David Burtka in a guest spot on Harris’ sitcom How I Met Your Mother and connected him back to his boyfriend. I wonder, if the same case had happened on a geek show, would the fans and press have done the research and made the accusation that forced Harris’ hand?
Geek movies poke fun at the mainstream’s narrow-minded definitions of what’s normal; we all laughed at the part in X2: X-Men United when Bobby Drake’s mom asks, “Have you tried... not being a mutant?” It’s an apt comparison, and highlights how ridiculous it is to expect queer people to hide their true selves; you can’t change how you were born.
Clinton agrees that the gay/geek dynamic comes down to the masculinity issue. “Being a geek is something that maybe isn’t the most socially ‘acceptable,’ but it’s a hobby,” he says. “Perhaps it’s even ‘fixable’—get out of the basement, get some new clothes... if you believe the stereotype. But being gay is perceived as being a direct attack on your masculinity—‘real guys like girls.’ I think that perception is starting to change, but I think being gay is still perceived as a sign of weakness. Note, for example, the question of whether professional athletes will (or should) come out. So maybe it is that geekery is a bit more ‘forgivable’ in the sense of, you can still be normal and a bit of a geek, but homosexuality is still thought of as a deviation.”
Wolverine aside, geek characters aren’t necessarily known for their manliness. More often they’re smart, confident, loyal, clearheaded. (Is it any surprise that the characters in a sausage fest like The Expendables are valued more for their ability to grunt out orders and spray baddies with machine guns than to talk out their problems?)
Another factor that Clinton points out is that a good chunk of the geek community is in their 20s and 30s. Naturally this group is more liberal than the generation before them. We accept Hollywood stars who make their careers doing sci-fi and speculative fiction films; we ourselves are game designers, writers, and other people making a living off what used to be regarded as just a hobby. It’s only logical that the respect for our heroes would remain untarnished despite them coming out.
The fact that sexual discrimination is rampant, while the geeky lifestyle is still relatively private, is part of the reason why gay geek actors are so important, Clinton says: “They’re geeks and it’s normal. They’re gay and it’s normal. They’re just normal people with a job that they love, a hobby/lifestyle they enjoy, and they like to kiss boys (or girls). So it goes to the point of, anyone can be a geek.”
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.