Tab Hunter Syndrome: dragging Hollywood out of the closet

Closeted Hollywood celebrities are the legendary Pokemon of the gay world.

Rarely seen and almost never definitively encapsulated, the notion of famous men living straight-washed lives in public and hedonistic gay lives privately has become a fetish unto itself.

The world of rumours and speculation surrounding their lives, loves and actual identities is a universe so vast and byzantine it makes QAnon seem like a kindergarten game.

One of the most famous examples of such a man was unveiled in 2005 when 1950’s tween star Tab Hunter came out through his autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: the making of a movie star.

The frenzied response, half a century after Hunter’s career peak, is a display in itself of how rare and how cherished a moment it is when a mainstream star of any era comes out of the closet.

Tab Hunter syndrome is an appropriate name for this manic affirmation from the gay community.

Tab Hunter was one of 1950’s Hollywood’s hottest heart throbs. Known for playing masculine love interests, he created a sensation fifty years later when he came out in his memoirs and described a career spent in the closet.

The coming out of gaylebrities isn’t always so pleasant.

Just ask Rock Hudson or George Michael.

But as the 21st century progresses, social norms have changed around celebrity lifestyles and the scrutiny involved.

The 90’s saw a wave of Hollywood figures begin to acknowledge and discuss their sexualities in unprecedented ways.

The generations to follow have taken to social media and allowed their fans to relate to their sexual and gender identities, granting new accessibility and understanding.

A wizened Hollywood trope: “coming out will limit, or even destroy a performers career”, is being tested like never before.

But somehow, it still refuses to break.

Tab Hunter: Confidential was the sort of love letter only a Hollywood star of the Golden Age could ghost write to themselves.

The 2015 documentary of the same name kept a similar self-congratulatory spirit.

It speaks to the rapid evolution of western society even six years on, Hunter’s take on himself and on his time in the closet is uncomfortable to behold.

Realistically, Tab Hunter was an inconsequential artist who spent his glory days making movies and music passively fetishising white supremacy and heteronormative patriarchy.

All the while, he enjoyed successful relationships with other commercially attractive, famous men while under the protection of Warner Brothers studios.

Exploitable studio actresses were at his disposal to allow him to uphold his image as an “All American boy” while speculative media stories were crushed.

Tab Hunter and Oscar nominated actress Debbie Reynolds on a date stage managed by Warner Brothers studios to allow their closeted gay actor to maintain an image of heteronormativity.

Tab Hunter: Confidential describes a microcosm built around closeted Hollywood stars to let them enjoy a healthy sex life and profitable careers by extension, consequence free.

Outside the microcosm, other LGBTQIA+ people were jailed, ostracised, even beaten and killed.

Hunter himself never touches on the subject of his own privilege, even as he acknowledges the irony of his career, built on whitewashed, straightwashed iconography.

The audience is meant to marvel at his bravery and business savvy.

But even after it became a moot point commercially or socially just who he slept with, Hunter stayed inside his bubble of privilege and shame-based discretion.

At a certain point, reading his memoir or watching the documentary, the question arises: what did Tab Hunter ever do for the gay community except come out?

The Stonewall riots and the HIV crisis came and went without hearing a word from Tab Hunter.

He came out when it became a profitable thing to do and long after the activism of the community the lifelong Republican chose to stigmatise and ignore had removed any actual danger.

Tab Hunter syndrome relies on the gay community celebrating any public figure happy to join their ranks.

In recent years, it’s become far more complex.

In October 2017, Oscar winning actor Kevin Spacey decided to out himself as part of his response to allegations of sexual misconduct with men, some of them minors.

The moment was seminal.

A major star (for Spacey was one then) coming out was proved a moment able to be stripped of old social disguises.

Spacey had clearly hoped to pass off his predatory behaviour as the deperate, drunken fumblings of a man in the spotlight forced to miserable extremes in the shadows.

No one bought it.

Of the many moments of social revelation brought on by the Me Too movement and the so-called Weinstein effect, Spacey’s clumsy outing and immediate downfall had to give many performers pause.

Times may have changed around them, but there are reputedly many Hollywood movie stars living in Tab Hunter’s privileged celluloid closet.

Australian actor Hugh Jackman has faced consistent gay rumours since his Hollywood career began in the late 1990’s. He continues to deny them.

Gay rumours about famous actors, musicians, dancers, athletes, directors or writers pre-date the 20th century.

It took Hollywood to monetise the process.

The 90’s and 00’s were fodder for some of the juiciest gay rumour-mongering Hollywood had ever seen.

Gay rumours still cling to Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman, Kanye West, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Matt Damon, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, Ben Affleck, Zac Efron, Vin Deisel, James Franco and many others since gone from prominance.

Young performers still share stories of entertainment industry executives telling them a life in the closet would make for a more profitable career.

While there is no shortage of grubby tabloid exploitation surrounding the Hollywood trope of closeted gaylebrities, there is enough smoke to suggest fire.

Jump down the rabbit hole of rumours about Hugh Jackman and you’ll find unverifiable reports of elaborate private residences, lengthy non-disclosure agreements, entire sets shut down to smuggle boyfriends in and out of production locations.

And who could forget the insane conspiracy world of Larry Stylinson from the One Direction age?

As wild and outlandish as it all may be, there’s just enough masculine ego and more than enough money involved to make the entire sordid business hauntingly plausible.

Time will tell just who will admit to residence in the Hollywood fame closet.

What must become certain in the intervening generations is how the LGBTQIA+ community chooses to respond.

Painfully, in the 21st century, social stigmas and local bigotries mean coming out is still often a heroic act.

But where the privileged echelons of Hollywood are concerned, coming out should not be a free pass to redemption or hero status.

The mythos around such men needs to change.

There must be more to being an admirable part of the gay community than status as a former matinee idol or thirst trap.

Tab Hunter syndrome must be revealed for the toxic mess it truly is and consigned to the pages of Hollywood history.