I am a big fan of the ABC sitcom Modern Family. I love its clever humor, complex characters, and poignant insights into the dynamic of an extended family. My favorite couple on the show is Mitchell and Cameron, two men in a committed relationship who adopt a baby girl during the show’s pilot episode. Mitchell is an uptight lawyer who loves musical theater and competitive ice skating. Cameron is a free-spirited stay-at-home dad who was a college football player and is highly competent with power tools. Both characters are fully three-dimensional and neither conforms to common stereotypes of gay male personas and behaviors.
Soon after the show premiered, audience members began to speculate about the sexual orientations of actors Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet. Many fans assumed that Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell, was straight and that Cameron’s portrayer, Eric Stonestreet, was gay. Fans based these assumptions on the fact that the character of Mitchell is more understated than the flamboyant Cameron. In reality, the opposite is true. Fan were mildly surprised when they learned that Jesse Tyler Ferguson is openly gay, but they were shocked when Eric Stonestreet publicly announced his heterosexuality and discussed his girlfriend on a 2010 episode of The View.
Fans of the show are fascinated by Stonestreet’s heterosexuality. How, they ask, can a straight man play such a convincing gay man? Although there is a tradition in Hollywood of straight men playing gay characters, few have achieved the exuberant, over-the-top perfection of Stonestreet’s performance. Unfortunately, Stonestreet’s Emmy winning performance is why he must address the issue of his sexuality in every interview and press conference that he gives. Ironically, after years of Hollywood actors worrying that they would be “outed” by the media, Stonestreet faces the opposite dilemma and must repeatedly “in” himself so that fans will accept his true sexual orientation.
Stonestreet’s experience illustrates the obsession many Americans have with the sexual orientation of prominent public figures. Inexplicably, it matters to us whether our silver screen idols and politicians are straight, gay, or bisexual. I don’t completely understand why this is the case, but I know that I am definitely guilty of speculating about the sexuality of others. For example, my mother and I are convinced that a leading Hollywood actor is gay. Whenever we see him in a movie or on a talk show, we analyze it for any clues that indicate his sexual orientation. Why are so many of us obsessed with knowing the true sexual orientation of public figures? Are we all just petty people with nothing better to talk about? Or does speculating about the sexual partners of celebrities make us feel important, cosmopolitan, and intuitive? In the case of me and my mother, we speculate about this particular actor because when he does come out (And he will!) we can sit back and smugly say, “Oh yeah, we called that years ago.” Is that so wrong? Or does it perpetuate a cultural fixation on sexuality that I should be working to overcome?