Pride and prejudice

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am

When Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet 10 years ago - an announcement that made the cover of Time, with her picture accompanied by the headline, 'Yep, I'm gay' - many predicted a swift end to the comedian's Hollywood career. The religious right in the US hounded her, with televangelist Jerry Falwell dubbing the actress Ellen Degenerate.

But, despite a brief hiatus, DeGeneres has gone on to become one of America's most popular talk-show hosts, and will host this year's Academy Awards (coverage starts at 8am Monday, Hong Kong time on TVB Pearl).

'Things have changed,' DeGeneres said on her show during an appearance by T.R. Knight from TV series Grey's Anatomy, who was reportedly described as a faggot by fellow cast member Isaiah Washington.

And things do seem to have changed. The Grey's Anatomy fallout focused on the homo-phobic behaviour of Washington (who has since repeated it and again apologised) rather than Knight's now public sexuality. A similar apathy has greeted many a coming-out during the past year, from that of actor Neil Patrick Harris (who plays a womanising doctor in the series How I Met Your Mother) to that of former N'Sync heartthrob Lance Bass.

But it's not all good news from Hollywood. Earlier this month, casting director Matt Messinger said gay actors' chances of landing straight roles can be drastically reduced once they decide to come out of the closet.

'Gay people are cast as straight all the time,' he said. 'But if you're asking whether things have improved for openly gay actors, I can't say it's any easier now.'

Is it any easier for actors in Hong Kong? It's hard to say, because there are so few openly gay screen stars.

The tabloids periodically question various actors' sexuality, with Andy Lau Tak-wah, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Sandra Ng Kwan-yu having been among the targets.

The latest addition to the tabloids' gay list is Roy Cheung Yiu-yeung, long considered to be the embodiment of masculinity in local cinema through a career playing uncouth gangsters and unflappable hitmen.

Both Cheung and the man who's said to be his partner, singer Remus Choy Yat-kit (below left, with Cheung) from the pop trio Grasshoppers, have denied being an item. After all, being openly gay - or even being rumoured to be - can have career repercussions.

The only major star in Hong Kong to have confirmed being in a same-sex relationship is Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing - and that was when he was an established figure in local showbusiness with little at stake.

Vicci Ho says local actors are wary of admitting being gay or even being associated with events such as the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival, which she directs.

'It's been very difficult for us to get someone to be the festival's spokesperson,' Ho says. 'We've asked around, and even some actors who are obviously very straight expressed doubts about supporting the gay community. They say they're worried they'll be challenged about why they don't oppose homosexuality - you can see there's still a wall.'

The tabloids' obsession with outing celebrities reflects public hostility towards homosexuality, Ho says.

'At least in the US they're very politically correct about it. It's not like in Hong Kong where there's bigotry against gay actors. If something like [the Grey's Anatomy episode] happened here, nobody would ask for the offending actor to be sacked.'