Entertainment

07.24.14

Dear John, It Gets Better: A Letter to Travolta

As another legal battle unfolds around his alleged homosexuality, what the actor can do for the best—and why gay Hollywood needs to shake itself from its hypocritical slumber.

Dear John,

We are here again, then. On with the sensible suit and fixed, stony glares. Heading to court. Big, fancy lawyers. Trying to keep a lid on yet more rumors about your sexuality. Claims you are gay. Dumb phrases, aren’t they? Aren’t you exhausted with this? We’re exhausted for you.

Now a judge has told your former pilot, Douglas Gotterba, that he can make a case that he is not bound by a past termination of employment agreement. He wants to talk, apparently, about a relationship he says was more than professional.

He has spoken to the National Enquirer and is planning a book. Gotterba says his termination of employment did not include a confidentiality clause, which your lawyer, Marty Singer, later cited. Singer, a formidable Hollywood legal pugilist, said ultimately that “we [he and Travolta] will prevail in this action.”

That choice of wording fascinated me. Does “prevail” here mean succeeding in somehow ensuring Gotterba’s silence? Is that really a victory to cherish? What are you fighting for here? What are you worried about him revealing that could be more exposing than his 2012 interview with the Enquirer, dismissed by your reps at the time as “ridiculous”?

Your supposed affair sounds very romantic, at least as reported by the Enquirer: bottles of Merlot, massage, and then your final encounter in 1992, when in a perfect collision of narratives you reportedly had just left the Church of Scientology’s Celebrity Center in Hollywood with your wife, and you suggested Gotterba join you for a walk on the beach.

“We were making small talk,” Gotterba is alleged to have said, according to the article, “when suddenly, I blurted out, ‘So, John, tell me. Now that you’re married, do you still prefer men—or women?’ He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Well, Doug, I still prefer men!’ I said, ‘Okay.’ And that’s the last time we saw each other.”

All lies, your side has said. I suppose your lawyer’s contention that you will “prevail” must give you cause to be optimistic. But to what end? How many stories have surfaced in recent years alluding to you supposedly having gay sex? Are they all utterly fanciful?

In 1991 you married Kelly Preston, yet still stories persisted that you hit on men in hotel and country club shower rooms. You have been photographed kissing a man. Are all these setups, coincidences, misunderstandings, a shabby mass tabloid conspiracy, people on the make? Are the stories false, but you yourself gay?

In a 2012 lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, an unnamed male masseur accused you of sexual assault, sexual battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, saying you came on to him several times during a massage session at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Then there was another lawsuit. So far, you and your lawyers have successfully warded off all of the lawsuits.

In 2010 Carrie Fisher said of you to The Advocate: “I mean, my feeling about John has always been that we know and we don’t care. Look, I’m sorry that he’s uncomfortable with it, and that’s all I can say. It only draws more attention to it when you make that kind of legal fuss. Just leave it be.”

“Just leave it be.” The best thing to do, for Fisher, is for you to let the rumors rain down around you, and you maintain a stoic silence with a whole bunch of "we" people in Hollywood knowing the truth, and that will be enough of an insulation of some kind.

“You know, I would hope that he would be able to be himself. It’s not even like I’m outing him, because it’s so obvious. That’s like outing Liberace.”

Fisher is suggesting you stop protesting these mentions of your sexuality, and that everyone knows and couldn’t care anyway. “I’m sorry he’s uncomfortable with it,” she says, a phrase that levels you with all your Hollywood millions—if you are gay—with the teacher from Topeka, the young kid from Boston, the lesbian grandmother from Abilene. Fear. Maybe shame. Discomfort. Worry. Looking over your shoulder. Checking your behavior. Trying to pass. The whole, inhibiting closet cocktail.

Then there’s your association with Scientology, which you’re a longtime believer in and which has had to deny having an anti-gay track record—strange, as its churches seem as camp and outlandish as a Bavarian count’s castle. Of all the things if you are gay, I hope you didn’t go to the church with a hope of being de-gayed and that your sexuality isn’t negatively bound up somehow in your continued association with it.

I feel for you, of course. It's been a strange few years for you in the public mind: your great film roles like Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Pulp Fiction (and I loved you in Primary Colors) seem squarely in the past. Your hair-weaves or wigs or whatever's going on up there have become alarming. You are now best known for appearing in public in your pilot’s uniform, as when Oprah promised to fly her audience to Australia.

And, as Tuesday’s news about the latest legal action showed, the public probably best knows you for the rumors surrounding your sexuality, which have become a constant, like a whirring fan. If they are untrue, I can understand your irritation, yet you have never roundly denied them.

Indeed, the rumors have become their own, well-worn joke. You’ve been outed, and then joked about being outed. Last year, the comedian Margaret Cho denied she’d outed you in her stage act, noting: “You know, I would hope that he would be able to be himself. It’s not even like I’m outing him, because it’s so obvious. That’s like outing Liberace. All I’m doing is taking public speculation and joining it with what I know to be true.”

She, like me, feels oddly sorry for you. “Ultimately, I think he’s a good guy,” Cho said, “and I think he is suffering, and it’s sad for somebody like that, who has made such a big contribution to film and to pop culture, who’s made to live under this guise of heterosexuality. I’m actually on his side.”

John, I get it. Some will impatiently say, “But it’s 2014,” when wondering why people still stay in the closet, and point to all the massive strides in equality, the traversed beachheads of pop culture of gay kisses in prime time, the general welcoming change in the cultural and political climate, but coming out remains the same vexed, and—even if it’s positive—intensely individual thing it has always been.

While we wave our rainbow flags and hail the onward march of marriage equality, we forget the more mundane individual terrors or challenges of coming to terms with who we are and of telling other people about that. And then we must factor in if that “you” is a Hollywood star of a certain generation, with all the fear of shattered careers and fan desertion, and industry shutters clapping down should the dreaded words be said, the truth be known.

I don’t know if you are gay, John, or maybe something else, its definition known only to you. But one thing that is indubitably true is that, no matter the progress in society and law, Hollywood’s top tier remains a warped paradise of closetry. No major Hollywood movie star of your stature is out, male or female. The very fact of that tells us either that there are no lesbian or gay movie stars—unlikely—or that the industry is hostile to the idea; the same industry that prides itself on its liberalism, its alignment to liberal causes, and whose denizens can regularly be relied upon to talk about the importance of freedom, artistic or otherwise.

The fear that keeps the closet so active in Hollywood, one supposes, is that no one would buy a leading man who is gay, that the macho, gun-wielding swaggerer he has to play on screen, the charming skirt-chaser, would be heinously compromised by the offscreen knowledge that he sleeps with, and loves, men.

But as long as Hollywood doesn’t trust society to suspend disbelief in its actors’ ability to act, this ugly, progress-inhibiting standoff will persist. Sportsmen like Michael Sam faced similar granite walls of incomprehension and outright prejudice after they came out, but they still did it. And they’re still in the game. And people’s respect for them grows, not diminishes. The right people are on their side, the bigots are the dinosaurs.

The other argument—one gay people regularly hear, from the very rich to those of us without the level of financial security and luxury you possess—is that one’s private’s life is no one’s business but one’s own.

This I would buy into more heartily if movie stars like you didn’t exhibit, and talk about, their wives and families so happily. Stars seem only too happy to compromise their privacy when it suits their own publicity ends, then complain when it is invaded by others; that is, when things are said about them that they don’t like or don’t control.

If you are gay, John, what an absurd position you keep painting yourself in. But also, Hollywood, what’s up with you, elevating a culture of lies, secrets, and repression around lesbian and gay sexuality—this when so many gay people work in Hollywood?

Shame on all the gay men and women colluding in that. There are so many of you there, and so little of substance in terms of gay narratives and representation (with honorable exceptions including Dustin Lance Black and Ryan Murphy) emerging from the Hollywood factory. There is something even more shaming that there are so many of you—agents, PRs—maintaining an all-pervasive, and culturally influential, closet for the leading talent you service. After a successful day marketing them as straight, do you still have Pride parties? Go out drinking in the bars? Rail at the bigots in Washington on TV seeking to curtail equality? Hold your outrage. Look in the mirror.

Some have questioned whether it would make a difference if a Hollywood star came out; what, eventually, it shows and does. But even as symbolism it resonates, just as the symbolism of stars like you, John, fighting legal cases, trying to silence people, trying to shut talk down, sends a message, ultimately, of shame around one’s sexuality.

Do you realize, John, that the world would still turn if you were gay, that the best people would welcome you, that yes, it is difficult whether you are rich or poor, but families can recast themselves, and the worst idiots spewing their hatred or disapproval would be easily jettisoned?

But also, just think: no more stupid court cases. No more men claiming to have had sex with you in saunas, no more handsome conquests from the past—grayer now, but they still have it—coming forward to sue you, or expose you. Because once you’re out, that vital central fact of you is un-exposable. You’ve done it. You’ve neutralized every poison arrow just by being honest.

You’d also be doing so much good. The ripples of change coming from coming out, whether Hollywood celebrity or rural teen, are always surprising, and proof that the personal is political in the best, most life-enhancing way.

But like I say, I don’t know who or what you are. So I suppose, again—grind grind—we shall see you in court. Or if not there, maybe the spa. Just two regular guys getting some steam.

All best, Tim