Manilow's News Is No Triumph for Aging Gays
The singer-songwriter is taking heat for coming out at 73. But is it ever too late?
When Barry Manilow came out in People magazine recently at the age of 73, the overwhelming reaction was, "Wait. Barry Manilow was in?"
Manilow's sexuality has been such a poorly kept secret in show business that no one even knew it was a secret. And the truth is that, for years, Manilow has been cracking the closet door open. He did, after all, begin his career playing the piano for Bette Midler in gay bathhouses as she sang for dozens of half-naked men, who paused to listen to a show tune or two between orgies. A straight man might take that gig, but...
And, two years ago, Manilow's good friend Suzanne Somers offered details about his wedding (to Garry Kief, his partner of nearly 40 years) on the talk show Watch What Happens Live, despite the fact that Manilow was still officially into the ladies at the time.
Heck, a 52-year-old friend of mine, also named Chris, says that when he purchased his first-ever album, Manilow's Even Now in 1978, he had already heard that Manilow was gay — even though Chris (gay, by the way) was 12 at the time, grew up in a Wisconsin farm community and wasn't really sure what "gay" meant.
So what was Manilow's deal? The Copacabana singer, who told interviewers as recently as five years ago that he was "single," now says that he feared news of his four-decade relationship with a man would disappoint his fans, many of whom are female and have been listening to him since they bought the 45 of Mandy back in 1974.
Haters Gonna Hate Barry Manilow
Here's my theory: When Manilow and Kief became an item in 1978, Manilow was at the height of his hit-making fame. Although there were plenty of gay people in show business then, almost none of them were out. Manilow's livelihood was built on ballads sung to millions of female fans, many of whom bought into the fantasy that maybe they could spend a Weekend in New England with the singer-songwriter.
So he hit "pause" in 1978 and stayed there, at least publicly, up until a week ago: still technically "straight," still wearing that feathered-bang Farrah Fawcett haircut (wig?), still sporting those party-like-it's-1979 oversized disco collars, still singing to female fans while perhaps drawing on different, private images to put over the emotions of the songs.
"I don't fault Barry Manilow for coming out when he did. I suspect his coming out, even now, can have a positive influence with his fan base," said Hilary Meyer, chief innovation and enterprise officer for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE). "Any time a public figure comes out, that's an opportunity to have conversations about what it means to be a GLBT person and to reinforce the message that it's still very challenging for older GLBT people to live with discrimination."
Manilow's insistence that he remained silent about his sexuality so as not to disappoint those fans is one reason reaction to his announcement has not been universally supportive.
"We don't want you. Go back in," one non-fan posted on the Broadway message board Talkinbroadway.com/allthatchat. Identifying himself as gay, the poster said that unlike, say, Ellen Degeneres, Manilow is no role model because he delayed being truthful until he was certain it wouldn't damage his career.
A bigger red flag has been raised by those who point out that Manilow personally benefited from marriage equality but, when California passed Proposition 8 in 2008, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, he stayed silent. (And, again, "single.")
Me, I feel a little sorry for him. Manilow continues to draw well in concerts, but he hasn't had a mainstream hit single in more than 30 years. Might believing he couldn't live his life honestly have something to do with that? Could the strain of having to switch the gender in every love song he wrote take a toll on a hitmaker's creativity?
Better Late Than Never
There are plenty of reasons to give Manilow the benefit of the doubt. He was in his 20s and residing in New York City during the Stonewall Riot. He lived through years and years of the persecution of gays and lesbians. He saw the AIDS epidemic decimate his (admittedly, unacknowledged) community. And, unless we're 73 and dependent on the album-buying dollars of strangers, none of us can really know how difficult any of that was.
It's understandable that some people are angry at the comically delayed announcement from Manilow. It's true that earlier candor might have made it easier for less famous, less wealthy gay people to come out.
LGBT Discrimination Double Whammy
According to a Gallup poll, elderly LGBT people remain significantly less likely to come out: Only about 1 percent of people born before 1943 self-identify as LGBT, as opposed to roughly 7 percent of Millennials. That may be because, as a group, older LGBT people face a discrimination double whammy. A 2015 study by SAGE found that 13 percent of older LGBT people said they have been discriminated against in the housing market. It also reported higher numbers of older LGBT people expressing concern about discrimination in health care, finances and support systems.
But that can't be changed now.
I'd prefer to remember that Star Trek's George Takei was 68 when he came out in 2005 and he has used the intervening dozen years to become a vigorous campaigner for compassion and change — while, perhaps not coincidentally, also enjoying a career resurgence.
Maybe let's not use decisions Manilow made in the past to judge the man who wrote the songs that made the whole world sing. Let's instead wait for what happens now that he is living an authentic life.
He has an opportunity here. Let's see what Barry Manilow does next.