Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ben Piazza

The film The Hanging Tree (1959) is a Western character study of a doctor (Joseph Frail) who saves a local criminal (Rune) from a mob that is trying to hang him. The doctor, played by Gary Cooper, then tries to control the life of the young man, promising to keep his criminal past secret in exchange for his labor. Bisexual actor Ben Piazza (1933-1991) played Rune in his Hollywood debut, and although Piazza was being groomed for movie stardom, he never attained true leading man status. Instead, he ended up with a steady, if unsensational, career of supporting roles and TV guest shots. Although Piazza was married to actress Dolores Dorn from 1967 to 1979 (no children), he became the longtime companion of Wayne Tripp, who was mentioned as his partner in Piazza’s 1991 Los Angeles Times obituary. Piazza and Tripp lived together for eighteen years.

Compared to the young Marlon Brando, Piazza began acting in 1952 during his college days at Princeton University. He was accepted as a member of New York’s famed Actors Studio and made his professional debut off-Broadway in 1956. Ben made his Broadway debut in 1958 in Winesburg, Ohio, a play penned by Sherwood Anderson.

Piazza had some notable success on Broadway, where he replaced fellow gay actor George Grizzard in the role of Nick in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Ben appeared in two other Edward Albee plays, The Death of Bessie Smith and The Zoo Story.

On television, he had recurring roles in two prime-time soaps, Dallas and Dynasty; as well, he played a supportive doctor in the coming-out TV movie Consenting Adult.

His big-screen credits included The Bad News Bears (1976), The Blues Brothers (1980), and Mask (1985), and his final feature film was the blacklist drama Guilty by Suspicion (1991), portraying Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck.

Piazza also wrote plays and a novel, The Exact and Very Strange Truth (1964), a coming-of-age story about an Italian-American boy in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was Piazza’s hometown. However, Ben wrote in the book’s introduction that any resemblance between the characters and real people was “irrelevant,” although the parallels to his own life were unmistakable. Piazza dedicated the book to openly gay playwright Edward Albee, who was a close friend.

Ben Piazza died of AIDS-related cancer at the age of 57 in Sherman Oaks, California, and is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

In this film clip Piazza plays Mr. Simms, the high school principal in Mask, starring Cher and Eric Stoltz:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ron Nyswaner

American screenwriter, producer and film director Ron Nyswaner (b. 1956 in Pennsylvania) has often worked on film projects having to do with homosexuality, homophobia and AIDS. Openly gay himself, Nyswaner has long been an activist for gay rights. His first produced screenplay dates to 1982, but he scored a mega-hit ten years later with his screenplay for Philadelphia (1993).

Philadelphia was Hollywood’s first big-budget film on the subject of AIDS, and mainstream big-name cast members included Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. Nyswaner was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, and Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for this film. Bruce Springsteen also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song (Streets of Philadelphia). Antonio Banderas was cast in the role of Miguel, the live-in lover of lawyer Andrew (Tom Hanks). Says Nyswaner, “The part of Miguel was written as a Hispanic for one reason – that’s my sexual fantasy.”

Well, there you have it.

Nyswaner also wrote the script for the television movie A Soldier's Girl (2003 Peabody Award winner), based on the true story of U. S. Army Pfc. Barry Winchell, who was beaten to death in 1999 after his fellow soldiers learned of his involvement with a transgendered nightclub performer.

Three years later Nyswaner wrote the screenplay for the much-lauded period film The Painted Veil (2006), based on the 1925 novel by Somerset Maugham. The film, which tells the story of a dysfunctional marriage,  starred Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber. Ron’s screenplay was the third film adaptation of Maugham’s book.

At present Nyswaner is working on a screenplay for Freeheld, a movie that will tell the true story of Stacie Andree, an auto mechanic living with her female partner of five years, Laurel. A crisis ensues when the medical benefits provided to her as a police office are blocked by a state law against same-sex couples. With the help of Laurel’s fellow officer, she begins a crusade for protection that soon garners national attention. Ellen Page will star in the leading role as Stacie, and Peter Sollett will direct. The short documentary film on which Freeheld is based won the Oscar for Best Short Documentary in 2009.       

Blue Days, Black Nights is the title of Nyswaner’s memoir, published in 2004 (called "hilarious and uncompromising" by The New York Times). He has written extensively for television and stage and has also directed two films, The Prince of Pennsylvania (1988) and Why Stop Now (2012). Nyswaner also wrote the screenplays for both films.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jared Max

Sports radio anchor Jared Max hosts Maxed Out in the Morning, an ESPN morning radio show that originates in the New York City metropolitan area. Last year his show for ESPN New York 97.5 ranked first in New York among men ages 25 to 54 in his time slot, the first time ever for the station. More amazingly, this rating came about after Jared announced his homosexuality on the air a year earlier, during his live broadcast on May 19, 2011. At 5:50 a.m. he said, “Are we ready to have our sports information delivered by someone who is gay? We're going to find out. For the last 16 years, I’ve been living a free life among my close friends and family, and I’ve hidden behind what is a gargantuan-sized secret here in the sports world. I am gay.”

Reactions from fans and sports professionals were overwhelmingly positive, but the memory that stood out is the way his board operator sauntered in and said, “Hey, my old man called – he said congratulations.” For Max, that was everything. “I got the impression that his dad was old-school, so it really meant a lot to hear that,” Jared said. It was quite a week for gays in sports. Within a few days of each other former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan, Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts and CNN's Don Lemon also came out that week.

Thirty-nine year old Jared, who has been single since November, 2010, made the current Out magazine’s list of 100 Most Eligible Bachelors. He lives in New Jersey, just a few miles from where he grew up in a Jewish household. He came out to his mother when he was 21 years old.

For as long as he can remember, Jared says he knew he wanted to be a sports reporter. As a kid, he would play football alone in his backyard while announcing the plays to an imaginary audience. In high school, he recorded 60-second score reports on his answering machine. Every morning he’d go running out of the house in his underwear to fetch USA Today, read the sports scores and then record the day’s message. He handed out business cards to his classmates announcing “The only answering machine that gives you the latest sports news and reviews.”  It turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy when a real sports phone line caught wind of it and hired him, and Jared Max has been working in the field of sports broadcasting ever since.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Michael Redgrave

Before British bisexual stage and film actor Sir Michael Redgrave married actress Rachel Kempson, he told her about his homosexual inclinations. He had realized his bisexuality while at Cambridge University and began a series of homosexual affairs with the likes of classmate John Lehmann. Barely a year into his marriage to Rachel, Michael had a torrid affair with Noel Coward. Not to be outdone, Rachel herself began a 20-year affair with married actor Glen Byam Shaw, who was also bisexual – even rumored to be sleeping with Rachel’s husband Michael.

All of this soap opera off toward one side, Michael and Rachel had three children who became actors: Vanessa, Lynn and Corin. Michael enlisted Corin’s help in writing his memoir, In My Mind’s Eye. During one of their writing sessions Michael confessed, "There is something I ought to tell you. I am, to say the least of it, rather bisexual". Corin encouraged his father to acknowledge his sexuality in the book, and Michael agreed. However, he later changed his mind.

There was much to keep hidden. At one stage Michael installed one of his male lovers, Bob Mitchell, in the family home. It was Bob (standing behind Michael in photo at right) who often walked sisters Vanessa and Lynn to school. Mitchell even accompanied the family on vacations and was regarded by the children as a beloved uncle. After his own marriage, Mitchell settled into a nearby house, and he named one of his children Michael, after Redgrave. Oh, I forgot to mention that Vanessa Redgrave married Tony Richardson, who was a notorious bisexual. I’m not making this up.

In spite of this sordid, tangled family scenario, Michael Redgrave maintained a career as one of Britain’s finest actors, on a par with Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. Redgrave was a skilled Shakespearian actor, and he was considered the greatest English interpreter of Anton Chekhov’s work. His film career made him known to millions worldwide. Michael was knighted by the Queen in 1959. Tragically, he contracted Parkinson’s disease, and its effects prevented his being able to learn new roles.

Leaving their London home for Buckingham Palace, to be knighted by the Queen in 1959, Michael and wife Rachel, with son Corin and daughter Lynn.

The Browning Version (1951 film)

Short video clip: Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is an aging Classics master at an English public school, forced into retirement by his ill health. The film, in common with the original stage play by Terence Rattigan, follows the schoolmaster's final few days in his post, as he comes to terms with his sense of failure as a teacher, a sense of weakness exacerbated by his wife's infidelity and the realization that he is despised by both pupils and staff of the school.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Per-Kristian Foss

On January 4, 2002, Per-Kristian Foss (b. 1950), Norwegian Finance Minister of the Conservative Party (Høyre), entered into a registered same sex partnership with his long-term partner Jan Erik Knarbakk, a top manager of Schibsted, a media conglomerate. Foss, shown at left in photo, thus became the world’s first cabinet level official to marry a same sex partner. The two men have often been described in the news media as being among Norway's most powerful couples.

Tantalizingly, Foss became the first openly gay head of state on January 25, 2002, when he was temporarily installed as acting prime minister when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister (second in the line of succession) were both out of the country.

Foss was elected to the Norwegian Parliament from Oslo in 1981, and was subsequently re-elected on six occasions. At present Foss is deputy chairman of  Høyre (the Conservative Party) and a member of the party's central board.

The couple entered into a legally binding partnership at the Norwegian embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 4, 2002, when Foss was 52 years old. The openly gay couple reside in Oslo's fashionable Frogner district.

In 1993 Norway became the second country in the world, after Denmark, to allow gay and lesbian partnerships. Norwegians have a reputation of being tolerant of homosexuals and respectful towards the private life of public figures. The local media only briefly mentioned the wedding.

Foss, at left wearing glasses, with partner Jan Erik Knarbakk.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Donal Óg Cusack

Special thanks to blog reader Michael for suggesting this St. Patrick's Day post.

Irish hurling champion Donal Óg Cusack (b. 1977) is a goalkeeper and captain for the Cork Hurling team, which is as close to heaven as you can get in hurling circles. He has been honored publicly by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) on numerous occasions. Cusack has won three All-Ireland medals, five Munster medals and two All Star awards.

Cusack came out a few years ago, although he would likely contend he was never really 'in'. In 2009 he published a best selling autobiography titled “Come What May”, which is still selling well. Cusack has become quite an unexpected spokesman on gay issues in Ireland – bullying and being openly gay in sports, for example.

Just prior to the release of his autobiography, Cusack revealed in a newpaper interview:

“I get more out of men. Always have. I know I am different but just in this way. Whatever you may feel about me or who I am, I've always been at peace with it. Since I was 13 or 14, I knew I was a bit different. I hate labels though. That's the way I am. I live with it and I am fine with it. People close to me will tell you there were never any tears. There was never agony. I just know this thing. [...] I've had to say this to people I'm close to again and again. This is who I am. This is what I do. I spend a lot of time trying to work things out but once I know something about myself, I know it. I don't agonise. It's logical to me. I thought about this but never had any problems dealing with it.”

According to Cusack, discussing his sexual orientation strengthened his bond with his fellow players. He went for a walk with then captain Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, whom Cusack had known since they were boys, and told him "the whole story, stuff that I thought he would have guessed"; they had "a deep and complex conversation from both sides and we came out of it like brothers."

Since then Cusack has been noted as one of the few "openly gay sporting heroes" both at home and abroad. “Come What May” won the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year for 2009.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Omar Sharif Jr.

Photo by M. Sharkey for OUT Magazine

The grandson of legendary Doctor Zhivago actor Omar Sharif has been the face of Coca-Cola for the Arabic world (2006) as well as a Calvin Klein model for a major print campaign in Egypt (2008). But last year he made a bold move when he published a letter in The Advocate, in which he came out as gay AND half-Jewish. He went on to castigate Egypt’s government for denying its citizens basic human rights.

From The Advocate:
 “I write this article in fear. Fear for my country, fear for my family, and fear for myself. My parents will be shocked to read it, surely preferring I stay in the shadows and keep silent, at least for the time being. But I can’t.

And so I hesitantly confess: I am Egyptian, I am half Jewish, and I am gay.”

The Jerusalem Post noted that Sharif's Jewish heritage comes from his mother's side, making him fully Jewish according to rabbinical tradition. His maternal grandparents are Jewish Holocaust survivors, Muslim tradition, however, is patrilineal, meaning the faith is passed down via the father. Omar Jr. was born in Montreal (1983) with the given name Omar Joseph El Sharif.

“That my mother is Jewish is no small disclosure when you are from Egypt, no matter the year. And being openly gay has always meant asking for trouble, but perhaps especially during this time of political and social upheaval. With the victories of several Islamist parties in recent elections, a conversation needs to be had and certain questions need to be raised. I ask myself: Am I welcome in the new Egypt?

...While to many in Europe and North America mine might seem like trivial admissions, I am afraid this is not so in Egypt. I anticipate that I will be chastised, scorned, and most certainly threatened. From the vaunted status of Egyptian actor and personality, I might just become an Egyptian public enemy.

And yet I speak out because I am a patriot.

I am a patriot who remembers a pluralistic Egypt, where despite a lack of choice in the political sphere, society comprised a multitude of beliefs and backgrounds. I remember growing up knowing gay men and women who were quietly accepted by those around them in everyday society.”

Sharif, an actor like his award-winning grandfather, received wide acclaim and international recognition by appearing on a hit Egyptian TV show in 2007. This breakout role propelled Omar Jr. into the world of stand-up comedy, where he has since worked on five continents and in five languages (!).

Mr. Sharif left Egypt in January, 2011, just before the revolution, and today resides in Los Angeles, where he studies at The Lee Strasberg Institute of Theatre and Film. He has since made appearances across the US in some of the most reputable stand up comedy houses.

Omar Jr. holds a Master's degree in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from Queen's University. Fluent in English, French, Hebrew, Arabic and Yiddish, he also speaks conversational Spanish. In 2011, he was selected to be the lone male trophy presenter at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, during which he participated in a comedic sketch with Kirk Douglas, the two men grappling over a cane.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Zeki Müren

Zeki Müren (1931-1996) was the most famous twentieth-century singer in all Turkish-speaking countries. He was never surpassed in performing a very difficult form of Turkish classical music that originated in the Sultan's Court of the Ottoman Empire.

In his early years he became a popular movie star, branching out into Arabesk (a Turkish musical genre), popular music and even composition – he penned more than 300 songs, many of them written for use in his films. A true polymath, Zeki also achieved success in poetry and design.

His recordings and televised performances made him a cult figure of almost mythical status, held as dear to the hearts of the Turkish people as Frank Sinatra in the U.S. and Europe. And, just like Sinatra, Müren’s recordings, issued over a 40-year span (1951-1991), are still heard today in all Turkish-speaking countries. Five wildly popular compilation albums have been released since his death, which resulted from a string of health complications and massive weight gain.

Although Zeki was a homosexual who always lived his life according to his own terms, it is astonishing that as Müren became more flamboyant, sporting heavy woman’s make-up, a bouffant hairdo. female dress and outsized jewelry, his popularity grew, along with record sales. His stage persona was as over-the-top as Liberace – in drag. He designed most of his outrageous costumes. It is difficult for us Westerners to comprehend that there was no public backlash, in light of Muslim countries’ unwavering intolerance of homosexuality. The last five years of his life, during which he was afflicted with health issues, were spent in relative seclusion with his male partner. Even so, he made not infrequent "guest star" appearances.

Yet after his death backstage immediately following a live television performance in Izmir, it was revealed that Müren had left all his money to an Army Fund for disadvantaged soldiers and a foundation for education. His death caused the greatest public grief in years, and many thousands of Turks attended his funeral. Zeki Müren is revered to this day, having his own museum in Bodrum; his extravagant grave in his native city of Bursa had to be fortified by a heavy iron grill to prevent well-wishers from taking all the soil as souvenirs.

After early success in Bursa’s summer theatre, Zeki moved to Istanbul to pursue a singing career while still in his early teens. After studying at the Fine Arts Academy in Istanbul, he recorded his first single in 1951, at a time when he was already a regular singer on Istanbul radio. His first musical film co-starred Cahide Sonku (in polka dots at left), the greatest female Turkish movie star at the time. It was the first of Müren’s 18 consecutive films (1953-1971), all of which met with success.

To say that Muren's stage performances were novel and over-the-top extravagant is understatement. Müren was one of the first artists to use a catwalk stage in order to mingle with his audiences. Zeki was particularly popular with conservative housewives, who flocked to his sold out afternoon shows fashioned particularly for the entertainment of women. In fact, it was this dialogue with his fans, his manner of interacting and his flawless diction and pronunciation of the Turkish language that best explains his wide appeal. Through his recordings, "good Turkish" was brought to the masses, providing them with a free linguistic education alongside their musical entertainment.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Bruce Hayes

Journalists covering the 1984 Summer Olympics heard reports that two gold medal winners were about to declare that they were gay, but no one stepped forward. However, two gold medalists from those Los Angeles games came out at a later date –  diver Greg Louganis and swimmer Bruce Hayes (b. 1963).

Hayes (shown at right in 2010 in Cologne, Germany, at Gay Games VIII) anchored the U.S. men's 4 x 200 m. freestyle relay team in what is widely acknowledged as one of the most exciting races in Olympic history, coming from behind to best Germany's Michael Gross by .04 seconds, setting a word record of 7:15.69. A native of San Antonio, Texas, Bruce was a full scholarship swimmer at UCLA, becoming the highest-scoring freshman at the 1981 NCAA Championships, thus helping the Bruins win the national title. During the early 1980s he competed on several U.S. national teams. Hayes captured three gold medals at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, and won a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Hayes retired following his Olympic success and thought his swimming career was over. He left the sport to earn a Masters degree at Northwestern University (Chicago) and subsequently moved to New York City to work in public relations.

Ten years after his Summer Olympics success, Hayes returned to the Olympics on the management side as Assistant Competition Manager for Swimming in Atlanta. He then resumed his public relations career in New York following the Atlanta Olympics. Fluent in Spanish, he worked as an executive Vice President for Edelman in Madrid. Hayes continues to travel the world on behalf of clients of Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm.

Bruce joined Team New York Aquatics in 1990, and he became the first Olympic gold medalist to compete in the Gay Games (Vancouver 1990 and New York 1994). His accomplishments at Gay Games IV in New York were particularly noteworthy, setting five 25-meter short course Masters world records, including becoming the first Masters swimmer to break 4:00 in the 400 m. freestyle.

Hayes has consistently lent his name and support to LGBT causes. In 1994, he was included in Out magazine's list of 100 most influential gays and lesbians in America. During his time in Atlanta he was a co-founder of the Atlanta Rainbow Trout swim team. He was one of the four charter Gay Games Ambassadors when the program was launched in 2002.

Says Hayes, "While I'll always be extremely proud of my accomplishments as a member of the U.S. National Team, particularly at the Olympics in 1984, in many ways my participation at the Gay Games has been just as meaningful to me. The Gay Games gave me the courage to come out and the awareness and willingness to get involved in our community's political struggles, things I sorely lacked during my years in the closet. The stereotype has been that members of the LGBT community weren't athletic. The good thing about sports is that it's a really good arena to dispel those stereotypes. The Gay Games just opened up a whole chapter of what the real story is with gays and sports."

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell

Donald Windham, second from left, with dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq, painter Buffie Johnson, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.

Gay partners Donald Windham (1920-2010) and Sandy Montgomery Campbell lend their names to a new literary award administered by Yale University to endow up to nine unrestricted $150,000* annual awards to emerging and established English language writers for outstanding achievement in fiction, nonfiction, and drama (it is possible that poetry may be included at a later time). The awards are administered by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, and winners are solely determined by experts in each field. Mr. Windham, who never went to college himself**, specifically requested that writers with no academic affiliation be considered. The awards are not operated by an application process. Instead, a steering committee solicits nominations, and a panel of judges selects the winners. The first nine recipients of these new awards were announced by live stream on March 4, 2013, and a ceremony conferring the awards will take place at Yale on September 10, 2013.

*To compare the richness of the Windham-Campbell awards, it should be noted that the Pulitzer Prizes for Literature and the National Book Awards are each worth only $10,000. Windham wished to ensure that the prizes would be substantial enough to enable each recipient to spend a full year writing, unencumbered by financial concerns.

**Immediately after high school, Windham worked at Atlanta’s Coca-Cola plant, rolling barrels through the factory. High school was the extent of his formal education.

The endowment for the prizes comes from the estate of openly gay writer Donald Windham, who died in 2010. A co-executor of Windham’s estate said that Mr. Windham’s will was quite specific about his intention to establish a fund for literary prizes, although he left the details of how such prizes should be awarded to be worked out by his estate’s executors and advisers at Yale.

Donald Windham was a minor, but well-regarded, author who relocated to New York City from Atlanta as a virtually penniless teenager. He quickly befriended Tennessee Williams, with whom he collaborated on a play, a stage adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's You Touched Me. Windham's social circle soon included the likes of Truman Capote, George Platt Lynes, George Balanchine, Paul Cadmus and Lincoln Kirstein. Windham wrote short stories and novels, including “Two People” (1965, available in a Kindle edition) about a married New York stockbroker who falls in love with a teenage Italian boy. He is perhaps best known, however, for his memoir, “Lost Friendships,” about his relations with Williams and Capote. Struck by the inaccuracy of Williams's own Memoirs, Windham published Williams's letters to him. Subsequently, Williams falsely claimed that Windham had not been granted permission to do so and trashed the volume, resulting in a very acrimonious and often public dissolution of their friendship.

Windham and Sandy Campbell (shown in photo as young men in Italy), were a well-known couple in New York’s gay literary circles. It was at a chance meeting at Paul Cadmus’ studio that Donald met Princeton undergraduate Sandy Campbell, who was modeling for one of Cadmus’ paintings. Windham and Campbell began a 45 year relationship that led to a collaboration as avid book collectors, voracious readers, and friends with many of the most important literary figures of their time. The couple lived together from 1943 until Campbell's death.

Windham wrote memoirs, novels, plays, short stories, and a children’s book. Campbell was a stage actor who also penned unsigned book reviews for The New Yorker and contributed articles to Harper’s Magazine and other publications. Campbell died in 1988, predeceasing Windham by 22 years. However, the partners lived so unostentatiously that it surprised many that Windham could leave a bequest large enough to generate more than a million dollars in prize money every year. His estate was amassed from a large inheritance from Campbell, successful investing and a very modest lifestyle.

In 1989, Windham gave Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library a collection of his  papers, with the stipulation that the library would receive the balance of Windham’s literary estate. Yale describes The Donald Windham-Sandy Campbell Collection at the Beinecke as “a rich and diverse trove of correspondence between partners Windham and Campbell and such writers as Tennessee Williams, E. M. Forster, Truman Capote and Christopher Isherwood; other correspondence involves such notable writers as Carson McCullers, Marianne Moore, Graham Greene, Isak Dinesen and Paul Bowles.”

1955 portrait of Windham (standing) with life-partner Sandy Campbell by celebrity gay photographer and writer Carl Van Vechten.