On Thursday evening, the media website Gawker ran a clickbait “scoop” about an executive at a major magazine company who had enlisted the services of a gay porn star/escort, arranging to pay him $2,500 for a weekend tryst. The john was married to a woman with two young children, and his brother once served as a senior official within the Obama administration.
Once the prostitute caught wind of the john’s powerful ties, he proceeded to blackmail the CFO by threatening to expose the arrangement unless he helped the escort with a housing discrimination case against a former landlord—one that he’d allegedly brought to the attention of his local politician, presidential candidate Ted Cruz (R-TX). Gawker, as is its wont, published all the text messages between the two—effectively outing and shaming the exec—while protecting the identity of the blackmailer, who turned out to be a complete nutjob.
The media then began (rightfully) policing Gawker for the despicable post, which only seemed to embolden its editor-in-chief, Max Read, who tweeted out a defense of the piece:
The problems with the story, as laid out astutely by The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, were that the man was not a public official, the post did not serve the public interest, and that Gawker may have even abetted a blackmail plot by serving as a bargaining chip. The post was taken down Friday evening at the behest of Gawker’s management board, and Gawker founder Nick Denton later released a mea culpa, claiming he’s experienced what alcoholics refer to as a “moment of clarity.”
Perhaps the vilest thing about the piece is how laced with homophobia it was, as its main, hateful “mission” seemed to be outing a man, as if being gay was something to be ashamed of in 2015, mere weeks after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states.
But Gawker Media has long harbored a creepy obsession with outing closeted men. Back in 2007, one of its first controversial stories involved its sister site Valleywag publishing a piece outing Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel in a post titled, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” In the comment section of the piece, Denton wrote that he was confused why Thiel would keep “his personal life a secret from journalists…” as if he was entitled to this information from a non-public figure. And then there was the unfortunate outing of Fox News anchor Shepard Smith in 2013, a nasty gay fright piece that was eviscerated in a column by the late, great New York Times media critic David Carr.
But no one has been on the receiving end of more harassment by Gawker than Oscar-nominated actor James Franco.
The repugnant hit pieces began around 2008, as Franco was mid-transition from wandering himbo to serious actor, with standout performances in the stoner comedy Pineapple Express and as the gay lover to Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk in Milk. Historically, there has been a troubling tendency by the movie-going public and tabloid media to question an actor’s sexuality once he’s convincingly played a gay character onscreen. Gawker, however, took it one step further: they accused Franco of being a gay rapist.
On August 18, 2008, the New York Post ran a gossip blind item that read: “Which hunk in a summer movie is a violent, closeted homosexual? The heartthrob snuck into his ex's apartment a few months ago and raped him so violently, the ex ended up in the hospital - and the actor paid him $500,000 to keep his mouth shut.”
Back before Denton’s “change of heart," Gawker had a tendency to blindly speculate about gossip blind items—which, for all we know, could be completely made up. But they took particular interest in this one, with then-Gawker writer Richard Lawson penning a follow-up post guessing that the gay rapist might be either Will Smith, Christian Bale, or James Franco, based purely (or rather, impurely) on Internet rumors.
“And then there's the compelling case of James Franco,” Lawson wrote. “Basically the rumor is that Franco dated the guy about two years ago, and still had a key to his house. Guy goes to an Oscars party, comes back and Franco is waiting for him and then awfulness goes down. He's rumored to have been abusive towards an old girlfriend, also an actor, some five years ago. This makes me sad because James Franco is dreamy and oh if he were gay we'd surely be married next spring, but if he's a raper then I don't want anything to do with him and he should be in jail.”
Days later, Lawson penned a follow-up post titled:
All it did was tally up commenters’ feelings, who voted that among the three baseless candidates, Franco was their choice as likeliest perp. Again, this is all a guessing game, and all of these pieces still live online. The following month, Lawson wrote another Gawker post titled:
The piece was pegged to Franco’s role as Penn’s character’s gay lover in Milk—and a subsequent interview with Out magazine—and, based on no evidence whatsoever, the Gawker article insinuated that Franco was a gay rapist, mentioning “the ominous rumor that he once raped his gay lover.” It also questioned Franco’s sexuality based on his playing two gay roles in films.
Lawson, who penned all of the aforementioned Franco posts, took to Twitter last night to admit that his posts accusing Franco of being a gay rapist were “baseless” and that he wrote them on the orders of his “boss” (he’s since deleted the tweet), essentially admitting that he’d based them on unsubstantiated claims:
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Lawson said, “I deeply regret those posts. Though they don't really have any upside, maybe they can at least serve as a warning for younger writers now to use far better judgment than I did back then.” Franco could not be reached for comment.
Things were left dormant until, in 2013, Gawker’s then-staff writer (and now editor-in-chief) Max Read wrote a post with the headline, “James Franco Is Gay,” and embedded an Instagram post Franco issued of him and a man gallivanting about New York City and kissing with the tongue-in-cheek caption, “#JamesFrancoTV in love????? #gawker.com #gay.” This was clearly Franco trolling Gawker, yet they ran a definitive clickbait-y headline proclaiming him gay, without including so much as a question mark.
Franco was, presumably, responding to the years of harassment he’d received about his sexuality by Gawker, including a recent post by writer Rich Juzwiak two weeks earlier following his Comedy Central Celebrity Roast titled, “James Franco’s Friends and Roasters Agree That He Is Very, Very Gay.” And Juzwiak, who months later would pen a post with the clickbait headline, “James Franco Bares Ass to Gay Men”—which solely consisted of Franco flashing his behind for charity at a Broadway Bares event that ended up raising $1.3 million for the fight against AIDS—would later whine about being disinvited from a Franco afterparty.
Gawker escalated their Franco witch-hunt with a post on August 6, 2014, that read, “James Franco Is Living With a Man.” The post, penned by J.K. Trotter, suggested that Franco was in a gay relationship with his frequent co-star Scott Haze solely based on a line in a recent New York Times profile of Franco where the Oscar-nominated actor shared that he and Haze lived in the same place.
Franco responded to the Gawker item—which still lives online—with posts on his Instagram and Facebook pages accusing Gawker of “always getting the cutting edge, homophobic scoop!”
The following day, Trotter doubled-down on his baseless Franco “outing” with a post titled, “A Short History of James Franco and Scott Haze Playing Gay,” which once again insinuated that Franco was in a gay relationship with Haze based merely on the closeness of their relationship—the fact that they’d been friends for a decade, and spent a lot of time together. This post also still lives online.
About a month after the two accusatory Gawker posts, I sat down with Franco and Haze at the Venice Film Festival, where they were on hand to promote their film adaptation of the Faulkner classic The Sound and the Fury. During our interview, I asked them about the Gawker posts alleging that they were a gay couple.“Oh god,” replied Haze, shifting in his seat and showing signs of frustration.
“Yeah, and then they got a little pissy because I said it was ‘homophobic,’ and yeah it is,” added Franco. “And then they said, ‘Oh, well a gay guy wrote it!’ I don’t care if the press is gay or straight. When did you have to face criticism for having a roommate? I don’t understand that!”
He paused. “And there were like… eight people living in that house, so to make a story about that—I don’t care, but it just shows how petty Gawker is. It’s ridiculous.”
Towards the end of our interview, I jokingly asked them when they were going to “hook up” on a new project again in the future, and they both started cracking up.
“Hey, no comment!” said Haze, bowled over in his seat. Franco patted him on the back and, barely containing his laughter, added, “Here in Venice? Pretty damn romantic!”
At least he hasn’t lost his sense of humor about it, though it stands to reason that given Gawker’s constant stream of harassment, Franco has a pretty strong case against them.