This week’s death of 94-year-old Liz Smith, the queen of gossip columnists, brought some frank assessments of her complicated relationship with the closet, including in the New York Times, Vanity Fair and a detailed, personal piece by Michael Musto in the fashion bible, W magazine.
I wrote angry columns as an editor and columnist at OutWeek from 1989 through 1991, referenced in some of these current assessments, excoriating Smith for her role in helping to keep the queer closet in pop culture tightly closed at a time when visibility was literally a life or death issue.
As the AIDS plague escalated, Smith, in her New York Daily News column, syndicated to dozens of newspapers nationally in those days before the Internet, was helping to cover for people like Calvin Klein, Jodie Foster, Hollywood mogul David Geffen, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Malcolm Forbes, photographer Annie Liebovitz and many, many more ― all of whom have since come out, no doubt due to the pressure and the exhaustion of keeping the closet door tightly closed.
Smith not only “respected” the closets of Hollywood celebrities and other public figures, but she also actively promoted lies and distortions, running items about false heterosexual affairs that their publicists fed her, though she knew the truth full well, since she traveled in these celebrities’ circles.
That was the epitome of Fake News, way back in 1989.
When it came to heterosexual public figures and their affairs, divorces and other romantic interests, Smith and other celebrity and political chroniclers not only had to get their details correct ― per proper journalism ― but they knew the public saw this as glamorous and exciting. Homosexuality, on the other hand, was something that revolted many in that profoundly homophobic era, so these scribes hid behind the notion of protecting “privacy” as an excuse for hiding information or outright lying.
This was of course hypocritical ― not caring about the privacy of heterosexual public figures but suddenly having more ironclad ethics when it came to the privacy of homosexuals, even when reporting on their sexual orientation was relevant to a larger, important story ― as the only thing they were protecting was often the industry that they, too, built their careers within.
And worse off, many or most of the columnists ― like Liz Smith ― were closeted and queer themselves. What better system for the powers-that-be than than to have queer people who have their own vested career and financial interests in the closet guarding the secrets of other closeted prominent and powerful people?
So much of that has broken down, thankfully as LGBTQ activists pushed forward, pointing out the hypocrisies and homophobia even among those claiming to be our friends, and as the Internet took the gatekeeper role away from the traditional media. Secrets are much harder to keep today, and in this case that is a good thing.
What we’ve learned is that when celebrities feel pressured by both the LGBTQ community and the media to come out ― from Melissa Etheridge and Rosie O’Donnell to Neil Patrick Harris and Demi Lovato ― rather than being hurt they actually thrive, both personally and in their careers.
We’re also able to look back now on the dangers of the closet and protecting it at all costs with zealous anti-“outing” polices with regard to public figures, and rethink just what “outing” means. As I wrote recently regarding Kevin Spacey, protecting his closet was dangerous because some, even in the gay press, who knew of his sexual harassment of an underage actor refused to report it, wrongly equating his abuse of a male minor with being gay itself and thus afraid they were going to “out” him.
So many closeted public figures have in fact engaged in same-sex harassment and assault often because they couldn’t go out in public to bars or elsewhere and knowing they could get away with it because no one in the media would ever dare report on it.
That was the case with multimillionaire Malcolm Forbes, who was sexually harassing his male employees ― and also living a secret life dating men while people like Liz Smith, who’d been flown by him to his lavish parties on yachts around the world and in places like Morocco, perpetrated the glamorous but false notion that he was romantically involved with his platonic friend Elizabeth Taylor.
Smith, like some other closeted queer columnists, also promoted homophobes who whirled in their social orbits. She gave many accolades to the prominent Manhattan socialite Pat Buckley, whose husband, the arch-conservative columnist and National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr., had caused an uproar in suggesting the tattooing of all people with AIDS ― a position Pat Buckley refused to publicly condemn.
That’s not to say Smith herself didn’t do good things for charity, including in battling AIDS, raising money for the cause and promoting such events that raised funds. But the most powerful thing she could do in those times was to come out and stop closeting others, and show the visibility of queer people, and stand up to the homophobes.
Eventually she did come out as bisexual, many years later. No matter, I was glad to see her evolve regardless of how long it took, and watch her rise to the challenge. And this year, at the age of 94, she finally admitted she should have come out sooner.
“It sounded defensive to protest that I thought myself bisexual, like I wouldn’t admit that I was a lesbian,” she told the New York Times. “I wasn’t a happy convert to any particular sexual thing. But I eventually got tired of defending myself and said, ‘Say whatever you like.’”
That will hopefully be instructive for many more.
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