From Katharine Hepburn to Ellen – An Overview of LGBT Celebrities, Past and Present

Spencer Tracy & Katherine Hepburn

Over the past few years, a number of celebrities have come out about their sexuality. In some cases, such as Apple CEO Tom Cook, the outing was accidental and unplanned but, typically, stars who want to finally come out do so on their own terms an in their own way. Ellen Page, star of Juno and Hard Candy made headlines when she casually came out during a speech given at the Human Rights Campaign’s THRIVE conference in 2014. No matter how a star comes out of the closet, the message is clear – I’m like you and we’re in this together.

While some may poke fun at LGBT celebrities who take the time to declare their sexuality, others know it’s more than just some piece of gossip or a way to get publicity. It’s about having the freedom to live your life as you see fit and to be comfortable simply date in public. Celebrities today have little privacy and so their sex lives are gossip fodder for newspapers, magazines and websites. So while living in the closet a few decades ago may have been easier logistically, it still took quite a toll on those who couldn’t live openly as they were.

The Silver Screen’s Deep Dark Closet

Today, coming out as gay or bi-sexual in Hollywood might still raise an eyebrow depending on the person but, usually, the news is taken in stride, generating a few internet jokes and then being filed away on Wikipedia. But back during Hollywood’s silver age, rumors about homosexuality were akin to rumors about criminal activity, partly because of the Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly referred to as the Hays Code. The Hays Code established a set of guidelines that established what could and couldn’t be shown in movies as a way of cleaning up Hollywood’ image after it was tarnished with a series of scandals in the 1920s.

While the code was initially meant to cover what could or could not be shown in films, it was extended to include the behaviors of most actors since studios simply didn’t want the headache a scandal could bring. Sex scandals had already brought down some of Hollywood’s former biggest stars including Fatty Arbuckle as well as growing rumors about other big name stars such as Charlie Chaplin. In the end, the industry thought a stringent set of behavioral guidelines would ensure smooth sailing from here on out.

Instead, the Hays Code simply drove the debauchery of Hollywood underground – for the most part. It’s impossible to keep anything a complete secret, especially in a town filled with people who love the limelight. Still, many stars were able to keep the truth about their sexuality a well-guarded secret throughout their career and, in some cases, the truth about them didn’t come out until long after they had died.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

Tracy and Hepburn were often linked together as being a couple even though Tracy was married as was Hepburn, for a time. Later, Hepburn would spend more than three decades with a woman named Phyllis and Tracy remained married but still rumors flew the two shared chemistry on screen and off. Spencer and Tracy may have hooked up with each other but there’s no doubt that each of them regularly hooked up with lovers of the same sex. The revelation that Hepburn was bi-sexual comes as no big shocker since she often dropped little hints in interviews, such as “I wouldn’t give you 10 men for any one woman, all men are poops.” The revelation about Spencer Tracy, however, shocked many when it first came to light.

Rock Hudson

Today, pretty much everyone knows Rock Hudson was gay since he was the first major celebrity to die from AIDS back in the 1980s. But then that news first came out, people flat out couldn’t believe it. Hudson was one of the biggest leading men of his time and a huge box office draw because he was so appealing to women. Still, once his condition became known he had no choice but to come out publically as a homosexual which he did shortly before his death in 1985.

Cary Grant

Another major Hollywood heart-throb suspected of being gay or, at the very least, bi-sexual is Cary Grant. Speculation on Grant’s sexuality still goes on today but his daughter recently reveal in a memoir that her father “liked being called gay” and he lived with fellow star and suspected bi-sexual Randolph Scott for more than a decade. Most recently, Betty White almost outed him in a 2010 interview.

Anthony Perkins

Best known for playing the disturbing character Norman Bathes in the Psycho movie franchise, Perkins carried on a long-time affair with another actor, Tab Hunter, and also sought out regular one-night stands according to Scotty Bowers in his book Full Service.

The Hays Code was eroded over the years and, by the late 1960s, no studio could adhere to its strict rules which included there could be no “willful offense to any nation, race or creed” or “pointed profanity [including] includes the words God, Lord, Jesus [and] Christ”. As rules relaxed about what movies could portray, it opened the door to films that have become classics for their gritty and real portrayal of serious issues and events.

By the late 1980s, the world was more open to the idea of homosexuality and a number of stars including Ian McKellen, Rupert Everett, and Stephen Frye came out of the closet without it ending their careers. Today, when a celebrity comes out as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or even transgender it may raise a few eyebrows, but there’s little chance that it will cost them their job. The world has, for the most part, moved on from worrying about who’s doing what to whom behind closed doors and, today, celebrities are more likely to be shamed for racist or bigoted comments than they are their sexual exploits.