04.19.10

The Queering of Ryan Seacrest

The American Idol host—whose recent erratic behavior on the air has prompted chatter—has for years alternated between receiving and delivering homophobic, gay-baiting attacks. Thaddeus Russell on the Seacrest persona.

Even if he is heterosexual, Ryan Seacrest should consider being gay.

After watching the American Idol host both gay-bait Adam Lambert ("my tongue isn't nearly as talented as yours") and dance with a man in the audience during one of last week’s broadcasts, I was reminded of the late literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. When asked by a journalist whether she was gay, Sedgwick, who helped create the academic field known as "queer theory" by finding homoerotic subtexts within classic literature, responded that the answer to that question depended upon which "regime" one was operating within.

Brian Dunkleman, Seacrest's co-host during the show's first season, reported that "the question I get asked the most" was "Is Ryan gay?"

Sedgwick, like Ryan Seacrest, lived between two regimes. Because of her brazen "queering" of cultural icons and celebration of homosexual desire, she was often assumed to be gay. But in fact she was married to a man and sexually monogamous with him from 1969 until her death in 2009. Though as queer as a three-dollar bill in her scholarly work, Sedgwick's own sex life could not have been more respectable. "As far as 'having sex' goes," she wrote in her memoir, "things couldn't possibly be more hygienic or routinized for me. When I do it, it's vanilla sex, on a weekly basis, in the missionary position, in daylight, immediately after a shower, with one person of the so-called opposite sex, to whom I've been legally married for almost a quarter of a century."

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I don't know whether Sedgwick ever watched American Idol, but I imagine that if she had, she would have understood Ryan Seacrest as someone similar to herself and to the fictional characters whose identities she complicated. There is likely no American celebrity who more fully inhabits what queer theorists call a "liminal" sexual state—a place in-between a culture's sexual categories—than the Idol host.

Seacrest's sexuality has been a major part of the Idol story since the show began in 2002, largely because of Simon Cowell's relentless attempts to do to Seacrest what Sedgwick did to British novels. The acidic British talent judge simply will not let Seacrest be straight. Perhaps unaware that Americans don't say such things in public, Cowell punctuates his put-downs of Seacrest with "sweetheart," suggested the host "should know" whether a contestant's high heels were fashionable, and even counseled Seacrest to "come out" of the closet. In 2006 the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was so troubled by Cowell's hectoring insinuations that it contacted the American Idol producers to "discuss our concerns—and the concerns of community members and allies—who have contacted us about this matter." Two years later, Brian Dunkleman, Seacrest's co-host during the show's first season, reported that "the question I get asked the most" was "Is Ryan gay?"

The Idol host, whose erratic behavior this season has intensified the speculation about his personal life, is hounded about his sexuality even outside the show. At the 2009 Oscars, where Seacrest worked the red carpet for E!, co-host Jay Manuel, the openly gay makeup artist and star of America's Next Top Model, noted Seacrest's unabashed enthusiasm for one actress'  gown. With a smile, Manuel told the audience that "Ryan was loving that dress" then asked his colleague, "fashion's your favorite subject, right, Ryan?" And when Seacrest served as substitute host on CNN's Larry King Live he received a most unwelcome compliment from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper—himself a public figure of great liminality. "That's the biggest tie I've ever seen," Cooper said of Seacrest's exaggerated pink neckpiece. Trapped inside the joke, Seacrest blurted, "your bow is tiny and mine is huge," to which Cooper delivered the fatal queering blow: "I've heard that often."

Tragically, Seacrest's response to all this has been to fight rather than submit. "Don't call me sweetheart," he shot back at Cowell after one of the first provocations. “We don’t have that kind of relationship. I don’t want that kind of relationship.” Often in these battles, Seacrest turns the accusations back at his persecutor, ratcheting up the homophobia and bringing to mind Shakespeare's observation that the surest way to incriminate oneself is to "protest too much." To Cowell's "closet" quip, Seacrest jabbed back, "stay out of my closet" and "this is about the Top 12, not your wishes."

Seacrest acts more subtly but no less forcefully against his gay identity on his syndicated radio program, On Air With Ryan Seacrest, where he adopts a highly masculine, "dude-bro" pose. To what must be a young, more heterosexual demographic than Idol has, Seacrest lets fly with homophobic innuendo and lascivious comments about female celebrities.

Aside from its contribution to anti-gay sentiment in a society where "faggot" remains the primary epithet in schoolyards, Seacrest's refusal to accept his own queering might also be a poor business decision. Last week he needed to look no farther than the front of the auditorium for evidence of this.

Sitting two chairs from Cowell was American Idol's newest judge, Ellen DeGeneres, whose career and stature have moved into greatness since she came out in 1997. Adam Lambert served as the guest mentor for the show, following a year in which he established himself as one of the most popular Idol contestants with a series of cabaret-inflected subversions of American popular music and extended his fame at the American Music Awards show with what many have called the raunchiest and most outwardly homoerotic performance in network television history. Seated behind Lambert were the stars of Glee, there to promote what is Fox's second hottest series and, according to Rolling Stone magazine, the "Gayest. Show. Ever."

Regardless of his sexual orientation, Seacrest is uniquely positioned to broaden our culture with little or no penalty. The next time he is called gay he need simply say, "yes, I am."

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story contained the phrase “sexual preference.” It has been changed to “sexual orientation.”

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Thaddeus Russell is the author of the forthcoming A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). He teaches history and cultural studies at Occidental College and has taught at Columbia University, Barnard College, Eugene Lang College, and the New School for Social Research.