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The Real LGBT Stars of Old Hollywood

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11.05.2020
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The gay subculture of early Hollywood has gained more attention recently thanks to the Netflix series Hollywood. While the show does feature portrayals of some real celebrity characters, its main focus is on the fictional minority characters and the made-up success story of their diverse film. Many stars in Hollywood from the 1930s suppressed their sexuality. They didn’t get the freedom that LGBT performers have now, but that doesn’t mean their lives needed a false happy ending in order to be recognized and appreciated.

Knowing the complete history of LGBT stars in the first decade of Hollywood is difficult since, in order to appeal to the public, publicists believed that aspect of their lives needed to be hidden. Knowing as much as we do about some LGBT stars is a feat considering how much rewriting and covering up the Hollywood studio heads did to everyone they managed, whether gay or straight. Biographies were changed to sound more interesting or relatable to fans, and relationships were deliberately orchestrated to publicize a movie or introduce a new star to the public. The only indication of some stars’ hidden sexuality comes from unprovable rumors, many of them spread after their deaths.

Remarkably, a number of stars did openly discuss their sexuality, usually later in life. Or, the truth about their relationships became widely known by historians and have therefore been accepted as fact. The following screen performers and artists from the Golden Age of the film industry, some of them from the same time period as Hollywood‘s setting, are now confirmed LGBT icons of that era.

Tab Hunter (1931-2018)

Born Arthur Gelien, Tab Hunter was discovered at 17 years old and ushered into a film career. He was never considered a star for his extraordinary acting ability so much as his undeniable good looks and charm. His tan, chiseled face and blonde hair made him a poster boy for the wholesome all-American young man during the 1950s and ’60s. He was often cast as the dashing American soldier and the object of female desire. His immense popularity with young female fans is precisely why he kept his sexuality a secret for most of his life. In his own words, he felt “painfully isolated, stranded between the casual homophobia of most ‘normal’ people and the flagrantly gay Hollywood subculture – where [he] was even less comfortable and less accepted.”

Five years before Hunter became a star, he was arrested along with several other men for “lewdness,” a common charge for men showing any signs of homosexuality in public. His arrest became the topic of Confidential magazine, a glorified tabloid that outed several stars during its reign, including Hunter, Lizabeth Scott, and Van Johnson. Hunter’s studio decided to ignore the story, predicting that many people will forget about his arrest, and they were right. No one wanted to believe that America’s golden boy could be a gay man.

Hunter did not have an incredibly long and memorable career, but he was able to leave the business on his own accord. He is also one of the few Old Hollywood stars who were able to marry their longtime partners once same-sex marriage was legal in California. He was able to talk about his sexuality openly later in his life, which many other huge stars were not able to do either. The story of his life and career is well-told in the 2015 documentary Tab Hunter Confidential.

George Cukor (1899-1983)

George Cukor was one of Hollywood’s recruits from the New York theater scene after sound was introduced into moviemaking. He found success at RKO Pictures and quickly gained a reputation for being “the woman’s director” for being one of few filmmakers who could get great performances out of any actress. He became the go-to director for women’s pictures — movies made about women and for women. With his success as a director came his popularity as a socialite as well. Cukor’s mansion, decorated by gay former actor William Haines, became the center of LGBT society in Hollywood. It was a........

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