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  WINDY CITY TIMES

MERV: IN AND OUT
by Amy Wooten
2007-08-22

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Now and then, the controversial argument of whether or not Hollywood stars have a duty to come out of the closet re-emerges, causing some in the LGBT community to collectively groan.

This time around, it is a direct response to the recent death of famed talk-show host and game-show producer Merv Griffin, and a controversial Hollywood Reporter article regarding his sexuality. Griffin, who recently died following a battle with prostate cancer, remained in the closet throughout his career. Some critics say Griffin owed it to the world to come out, while others feel it was ultimately his own business.

Following Griffin's death at age 81, Hollywood Reporter writer Ray Richmond wrote a column that discussed the celeb's sexuality and how the media places pressure on gay stars. The Hollywood Reporter's editor pulled the piece from its Web site after receiving pressure, only to put it back up later on a different page and under a less eye-catching headline following reader reaction. Reuters, a news wire, then decided to pull the story on the basis that the article didn't meet its news standards.

But the media's handling of discussing Griffin's sexuality wasn't the only controversy. The article caused much discussion over whether or not Griffin had a responsibility to come out of the closet.

Gay columnist Michelangelo Signorile claimed on his blog that Griffin's silence was dangerous because it led him to fire openly gay men. He also wrote that the celebrity could have 'helped prevent the AIDS epidemic' if he had utilized his close relationship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Others in the gay community think that some are blowing Griffin's decision to keep mum out of proportion, and say that it would have been career suicide for Griffin, anyway.

TV Week writer Tom Shales wrote that many participating in Internet discussions about Griffin 'sound like members of a lynch mob. In this case, one might think that victims of persecution would feel a tab more reluctant to persecute someone else, especially a recently deceased man,' he continued.

Chicago community leaders were asked to share their thoughts on the issue.

'It seems rather irrelevant,' AIDS Foundation of Chicago's Jim Pickett said. 'He didn't make policy or legislation.'

There are many, like Pickett, who feel that with the exception of those who are making policy or are using their prominence to attack the LGBT community, coming out is a personal choice—even for those in the Hollywood spotlight.

Local gay movie critic Richard Knight, Jr., agrees. 'I think the word 'responsibility' is really complicated,' he said. 'You really only have to be responsible for yourself. But then again, there is also that idea that you've chosen a public profession.' Knight writes for Windy City Times.

Knight, throughout his career, has spoken to celebrities both young and old, and sees a 'huge generational gap' when it comes to the issue. Older celebrities of Griffin's generation are hesitant to come out, and are part of a generation of stars that kept their private lives under wraps.

Some feel the community needs to prioritize. 'Where we need to be focused is why real, everyday people feel this stigma and homophobia,' Pickett said. 'This internalized homophobia leads to crisis in the gay community, including the AIDS crisis.' He added that when people aren't open and honest about themselves, they tend to not make the best choices.

But do out celebrities help everyday folks to come out? Pickett feels that we are giving them too much credit. 'I really don't know if Merv Griffin came out that more people would feel safer to come out. It still remains a personal decision.'

And for those who stay in the closet, whether they are the hottest and most influential celebrities or your average Joe, may have very personal reasons for not coming out, says Center on Halsted's Director of Mental Health Services Jason McVicker.

Although he feels remaining closeted takes a psychological toll on a person, adding stress and wasting energy, 'It is important to realize everyone lives in a certain context, and there might be a specific reason to remain in the closet,' McVicker said.

McVicker, like others out there, feels like the LGBT community seems to forget the decision is very personal. 'Gay people can be particularly cruel in that regard because it is such a politicized issue. I think there really has to be a distinction from coming out as a psychological process and coming out as a sociopolitical tool.'


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