Sunday, August 12, 2007

Merv Griffin's Dangerous Closet

The Hollywood mogul Merv Griffin died at the age of 82 over the weekend after a battle with cancer, and I was amazed to see The New York Times actually discuss his sexual orientation, the palimony lawsuit and the male-on-male sexual harassment lawsuit. I'm thinking perhaps the Times editors really took it to heart when many of us criticized them after Susan Sontag's death and the obituary cover-up of her sexual orientation and her relationship with Annie Liebovitz. So far, in the the rest of the obits on Griffin (Reuters, Associated Press) I've seen nothing about his homosexuality.

And yet, it is very important for reasons far beyond visibility or mere gossip. Merv Griffin was an example of how dangerous the closet can be -- and how the closet and power are a combustible combination that adversely affects so many other lives. We should point to his life for GLBT youth and say, "Don't let this happen to you. Don't let your closet compromise you to the point where you are actively harming your own people, even though you have the power to do so much good."

Griffin never acknowledged he was gay, though it became widely known in Hollywood, even as Eva Gabor played his beard. Yet, it was nothing discussed in the media and, apparently, in many of his own circles, particularly straight political circles. Though he'd quietly led a gay life -- and had his pool parties filled with hot young men in years past, as well as a parade of boyfriends -- that was viewed as "private" information that was not discussed in mixed company. I had interviewed many gay men who'd known Griffin as gay, as well as men who told stories about how his closet had him doing horrendous things -- and how he was threatened by openly gay people.

First off, Griffin's closet kept him shockingly silent while he had access to the president of the United States as his own people were dying. This man was intimate with the Reagans (and Nancy Reagan in particular) during the height of the AIDS epidemic in 80s, with few treatments available and fear-mongering having gripped the media. Griffin's gay brothers -- his friends, his lovers, his people across America, around the world -- suffered and met horrific deaths. And yet, because he was closeted it is highly unlikely he ever made the connection for the Reagans (between himself and those who were suffering and dying), pointed out the government negligence, or even talked openly as a gay person. They likely knew, but it was unspoken, and that allowed all involved to just rationalize things --to say to themselves that, well, Merv, is not like those other people, and to always believe that maybe it wasn't true anyway, and that he was truly dating Eva Gabor. He also stayed silent about the epidemic in the media -- ironic since he was a man very much at the center of the media industry and in shaping communications and television in this country -- when his voice would have made a huge difference.

Secondly, Griffin's closet had him engaging in workplace sexual harassment, something that, as I showed in my 1993 book Queer in America, is common among closeted powerful men, who often are simply seeking outlets for sex. That was not only focused on in the Denny Terrio lawsuit against Griffin but also was something that several Hollywood gay men told me about, offering first hand experience, while I was researching Queer in America back in the early 90s and some of this (though, for legal reasons not all) is reported on in the book.

Finally, Griffin's closet had him firing gay men who'd actually made it up through the ranks of his own company, simply because they were openly gay. There is a story in Queer in America about a man identified as "The Mogul" who did just that. I can now reveal that The Mogul is Merv Griffin. Open homosexuality is a threat to the closeted, and powerful people in the closet like Merv Griffin will often do whatever it takes to squash those who are open and who might advocate that all among the powerful should come out.

Merv Griffin accomplished a lot and is, in his death, being held up as a example of a stellar Hollywood businessman. But he should also be held up as man who, like Malcolm Forbes before him, was hugely influential and powerful and yet still allowed the closet and homophobia to manipulate his life, and to cause him to do harm to his own people. That should not be forgotten.