In 1992, being out at work in Hollywood wasn’t really much of a thing and yet, I found myself coming out to Steven Spielberg in his office. I had started my career in film as the DGA trainee on “The Color Purple” in 1985, keenly aware of how astonishing it was not only to have Steven as my boss on my first movie but also to have it feature such a bold and beautiful portrayal of LGBTQ+ representation.
Producing along with Steven and Quincy Jones were Kathy Kennedy and Frank Marshall. They have since gone on to win the Thalberg Award, Kathy is President of Lucasfilm and Frank is the most recent member of the EGOT club, but at the time they had recently left Amblin, Steven’s company which they had co-founded, to go out on their own. I was with them in the mountains of British Columbia filming “Alive,” which I was co-producing, when Steven’s office called saying that he wanted to meet with me about a possible producing deal and could I come in? Oh My Frickin’ God.
But first, I had to tell his office I couldn’t be there until filming was over in a few months and then I realized I had to divulge to Kathy and Frank that his office had called me. I will never forget Kathy telling me “Bruce, I believe that windows of opportunity open, but they also close. So what you are going to do is call Steven’s office right back and tell them you will fly to L.A. tomorrow to meet with Steven” and so I did.
I had recently come out to Kathy and Frank, who had become like family to me by that point, and their only reaction was confusion as to why it had taken me so long to tell them. I realized that I now had the most beautiful and accepting work home with them and if I was going to leave that to go work for Steven (it turns out Kathy would soon return to work with Steven on almost 20 more films, but I didn’t know that then), I better be sure that the work home he was offering was equally accepting — and that I needed to come out to him to be sure. Cue the gay panic. At the end of an amazing meeting, in which he promised he would help make my producing dreams come true, which he absolutely did, as you will hear in a moment, I told him I had something to tell him and blurted out I was gay. He asked “why would you think that would matter to me at all?,” to which I replied “that is the most wonderful response and I didn’t think that it would, but if I am coming to work for you I need to be able to bring 100% of who I am to the job and being gay is an important part of who I am … so I had to be sure.”
Since that day in his office, I have been an openly gay producer and I became a gay activist shortly thereafter. Producing and activism have been the two great passions of my life for the last 30 years and what follows are some personal thoughts about the evolution of being out in Hollywood and of LGBTQ+ projects over that time period.
Soon after I came out to Steven – and in my mind, once I was out to him, I wasn’t going to let anyone mess with me on that score (!) – the fledgling Clinton Campaign held the first ever LGBTQ event by a major party presidential candidate at the Palladium in Hollywood and it became Hollywood’s de facto coming out party … but only if you were behind the camera. For LGBTQ+ actors (a word I will use to encompass people of all genders and identities who appear in front of the camera), it was a whole different story.
In 1993, Steven visited the set of “The Flintstones,” the first film I produced, with a script in hand proclaiming “I have your next film.” Now, as my first production, between Rosie O’donnell, Elizabeth Taylor and the B-52’s, The Flintstones was hardly devoid of a gay sensibility… but, in a continuing theme of “that’s hard to imagine now,” Rosie didn’t come out publicly until 2002. The script Steven excitedly handed my was “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Eveything, Julie Newmar!” The thought of wanting to cast out queer actors – much less needing to– for the three very queer lead roles of Vita Boheme, Noxeema Jackson and Chi Chi Rodriguez, wasn’t at all a “thing” then – out queer actors were very few and far between. And so we offered two of the roles to Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo but for the third role we did screen tests. Actors had to get themselves into drag and audition and a who’s who of actors at the time did just that… and the one who claimed the role was Patrick Swayze, who later told me that the reason he was so convincingly wonderful as Vita was because he was playing his mother.
Shortly after that, Hollywood super-attorney Alan Hergott took openly gay Nina Jacobson (who would go on to become a studio head at Disney and then the producer of “The Hunger Games” films) and I to lunch. Alan had been one of the town’s earliest LGBTQ activists and had put together the first Hollywood charity event for a non-AIDS related LGBTQ organization, an annual dinner for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Nowadays, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Hollywood fundraising event for an LGBTQ organization – but back then there was only one. At lunch, Alan informed us he had done his time and was passing the Hollywood LGBTQ activist baton … to us! From that came Out There, an activist organization run by a whole new generation of out entertainment industry-ites. Our work with the Task Force, Human Rights Campaign, the L.A. Center, GLAAD and other groups led us onto the pages of Entertainment Weekly and into the halls of the White House.
Also in the mid-late 90’s, we started to see more LGBTQ films and television shows, but still very few out actors. “The Birdcage” made $124 million dollars domestic in 1996, but Nathan Lane didn’t come out until several years later. Ellen came out in 1997 and “Billie’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” was a hit at Sundance in 1998, but its star, Sean Hayes, didn’t come out until 2010. It was in that same period that I was asked to join the Board of Outfest, the L.A. Gay and Lesbian film festival, where I was surprised to learn – or maybe shouldn’t have been – that not a single studio or network was a sponsor of the festival … and it’s a FILM festival …. in HOLLYWOOD. Sid Sheinberg, a towering legend of the industry and early LGBTQ+ ally, agreed to bring Universal on board with a $10,000 sponsorship and other studios, networks and agencies soon followed.
In 1998, my new producing partner, fellow openly gay Dan Jinks and I were sent the script to “American Beauty” and Steven Spielberg said yes to buying and then green lighting it at DreamWorks. We were suddenly a studio film with an openly gay screenwriter, Alan Ball, two openly gay producers and some great LGBTQ representation in the script, in the form of the two Jims who, in Alan’s conception, were the only two people in the film who had their act together. There still wasn’t much of a pool of out gay actors to draw from and we cast the wonderful Scott Bakula and Sam Robards, Jr in those roles. Our lead actor, Kevin Spacey, would remain closeted until he was infamously outed by an accuser in 2017. On a happier note, Kevin, Alan, director Sam Mendes, legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall and Dan and I all won Oscars for “American Beauty” in 2000… cue Steven Spielberg making my dreams come true.
In 2007, Lance Black sent Dan and I the script to “Milk” with Gus Van Sant attached to direct. This was a life changing moment for me, because it was the two passions of my life meeting in a single project and it only served to re-double my commitment to both producing and activism. During our prep period, Lance, Gus, Dan and I were scouting locations for the film in San Francisco and we were standing in Harvey Milk Plaza at the corner of Market and Castro in the Castro District… aka the gay mecca. I saw three clearly gay teenage boys come out of the subway and as they walked towards us, they recognized Gus, ran up to us excitedly and one of them asked “Are you Gus Van Sant?!” When Gus said he was, they asked him what he was doing there and he said he was getting ready to make a movie about Harvey Milk and they said “Who’s Harvey Milk?” Three openly gay kids in 2007, standing in HARVEY MILK PLAZA at the corner of MARKET AND CASTRO and they don’t know who Harvey Milk is!! And Lance, Gus, Dan and I all had the exact same realization, which gave us chills then and gives me chills now – if we didn’t get this movie made, Harvey Milk was going to be lost to history. This wasn’t just a film we were making, it was a sacred mission.
We wanted and needed a big name in the role of Harvey to get the movie made and there still weren’t many openly gay options at that time. As a point of comparison, Zach Quinto would come out in 2011 and Matt Bomer in 2012. One trailblazer was Alan Cumming, who had come out as bisexual in 1999 and there were a few others, but, to play Harvey Milk, Sean Penn was the (straight) man for the job.
When “Milk” was ready to be released, we were prepared for Focus Features, a division of Universal, to want to make the movie look as palatable to straight audiences as possible, but to our surprise, they had learned on “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005 that, in order to get straights to see a gay movie, the ones who would consider it (many won’t) want to first know that the gays love it! So, you need to appeal to your core LGBTQ audience first if you have a chance to cross over. In the case of “Brokeback,” which made $85 million domestic, they definitely did cross over, but in the case of “Milk,” which made $32 million, that was not as clear. Our takeaway was that for friendly and/or open-minded straight audiences, many, if not most, of whom are women, gay romance sells much better than gay history!
The importance of authentically marketing your project as gay was wild to us, because Harvey knew to do that in his campaign against Prop 6, California’s anti-gay ballot initiative in 1978 and he won… but 30 years later, we failed to do that in the campaign against Prop 8, California’s anti-gay marriage initiative… and we lost.
When Sean and Lance won their Oscars for “Milk” in early 2009, they both gave impassioned gay rights speeches, one as a committed ally and one as an openly gay man, and when you consider that hundreds of millions of people were watching around the world that night, I believe that may have been the largest single audience hearing a LGBTQ+ rights message in the history of the world — another true testament to the power the entertainment industry possesses to change hearts and minds.
Losing Prop 8 and having gay marriage — which had been granted in California, by election night 2008, to 18,000 couples, including my husband and I — ripped back away from us sent shockwaves through the LGBTQ+ community. The same night that Obama had won by a huge margin in the state, California had also voted to take marriage away. That led to my involvement in the activist fight I’m most proud of to date, taking Prop. 8 to the Supreme Court, which took five years, and finally getting it reversed, restoring gay marriage in California.
Cut to 2017, when Lance sent me the script of “Rustin,” the first draft of which had been written by Julian Breece, an openly queer writer of color. Lance had mentioned the project to me while we were working on “When We Rise,” Lance’s ABC mini-series about the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in San Francisco and I had most definitely asked to be involved. I had learned about “Rustin” when “Brother Outsider,” a documentary about him, had played at Outfest during my time there in the ’90s. As we were looking for a new home for the project, I was constantly reminded, though, that no one knew who Bayard was and I began to realize that, like Harvey Milk had once been, Bayard Rustin was in danger of being lost to history. But then, I remember thinking “well, I know one person who knows who he is!” … and that was the person who had presented Bayard Rustin posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013, President Barack Obama. As if sent as a gift from the queer gods, he and Michelle Obama had opened Higher Ground, their production company at Netflix, a month earlier and so with our brilliant openly queer director of color, the iconic George C. Wolfe, now on board, we sent the script to fellow openly gay producer Tonia Davis at Higher Ground and the rest will hopefully be Bayard-Rustin-securing-his-rightful-place-in history!
On the one hand, it’s shocking – in a bad way – how much more relevant the film is today than even when I came on board four years ago. Rustin has a line early on in the film where he says “counting on the courts to eradicate racial inequity, that’s madness.” That made sense in 1963, but when I first read that line in 2019, it was unimaginable to me that today we would have a Supreme Court actively and violently talking our rights AWAY – that counting on the supreme court to eradicate racial inequity would actually be madness AGAIN, exactly 60 years later.
On the other hand, “Rustin” is part of a banner – and I would even say unprecedented — year of LGBTQ+ representation in film. “Rustin,” “Nyad,” “All of Us Strangers” and “Maestro,” for starters, are all among the year’s most prestigious films and all feature LGBTQ+ lead characters, played either by out LGBTQ+ stars Colman Domingo, Jodie Foster and Andrew Scott or strong LGBTQ+ allies, Annette Bening, Paul Mescal and Bradley Cooper with supporting gay roles in “Maestro” played by openly gay actors the aforementioned Matt Bomer and Gideon Glick.
While we’ve made tremendous progress in many ways since that day I came out to Steven Spielberg in his office 31 years ago, there is so much more work to be done, especially now. To pull off the march on Washington, Bayard Rustin built a mighty coalition of activists, civil rights leaders, union members, Black, white, young, old, rich, working class and poor and together, they changed the world. Exactly 60 years later, with the forces of darkness and regression pushing in from all sides, it is time for us to do the same. If we are to push through these challenging times – and make no mistake, we most definitely will — we will need to put back together Rustin’s coalition, with the brilliant addition this time around of the LGBTQ+ community — proud, fierce and undefeatable!
Bruce Cohen is a film, theater and television producer whose credits include “American Beauty,” “Milk” and Neflix’s recent biopic “Rustin.”
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