"Come out. Come out NOW! Come out in droves!"
When Neil Patrick Harris was forced to announce last weekend that he was "a very content gay man living my life to the fullest," he was responding to a recent onslaught of online speculation about his sexuality.
The actor, best known for his role as teenage doctor "Doogie Howser" in the late '80s, had been relentlessly targeted by bloggers who have posted photos of Harris with his boyfriend and who exhorted the star to out himself.
The experience mirrored that of Lance Bass, the former 'N Sync singer who outed himself in a People magazine cover story last July after years of online innuendo about his sexuality.
And just two weeks ago, "Grey's Anatomy" star T.R. Knight revealed that he's gay after he became the target of months of rumors spread on PerezHilton.com and other gossipy blogs and Web sites.
Among the most visible online gossips has been Mario Lavandeira, who runs PerezHilton.com. After Harris declared his sexuality, Lavandeira crowed on his blog: "And we are not done yet!!! We are throwing down the gauntlet and issue a challenge to all the closeted celebrities out there: Come out. Come out NOW! Come out in droves!"
In addition, he posted a list of stars, including a cable news anchorman, an actress, two singers and some TV stars, declaring that they were his next targets.
Start Spreading the News
The so-called mainstream media is only too happy to eat up the headlines, but it appears that Lavandeira's quest is a lonely one. After posting his missive, hundreds of his readers angrily took to their keyboards to express their outrage at the outing of Harris.
One fan commented: "Why are you picking on this guy? I don't think anyone has the right to out anyone else! It is up to the individual if they want to divulge their sexual orientation." Another one fumed: "So what if they choose to be closeted. Maybe their dad would have a heart attack if he knew -- you don't know."
Online gossip columnists were just as outraged. E!Online's Marc S. Malkin says it was "spiteful" to out Harris.
"You can't hide anymore because we're watching the world in real time, but I feel that we should allow these people to come out on their own," says Malkin. "That's their personal journey. ... But if you have some right-winger who's saying that gays should burn in hell and he's having gay sex, then that's fair game."
Public Lives versus Private Lives
Some gay activists agree that there is a difference between outing celebrities and exposing the sexuality of hypocritical politicians or preachers such as Ted Haggard, the evangelical leader forced to step down from the New Life Church last week after a gay escort revealed that he'd had sex with Haggard.
Mike Rogers, who runs BlogActive.com, which he has dedicated to exposing gay politicians and political aides who endorse anti-gay legislation, denounced the outing of Harris.
"If you care about gay people, why would you out them willy-nilly like that?" Rogers asks. "What did Neil Patrick Harris do if he doesn't want his personal life splashed all over the front pages? I don't out people. I just report on politics and the hypocrisy of politicians."
Joe Solmonese, the president of Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, was loathe to condemn outing, but he does distinguish between targeting celebrities and politicians. And there are, of course, differences when it comes to outing public figures versus private citizens.
Take the case of comedian Ellen DeGeneres. After months of speculation and innuendo about her sexuality, DeGeneres came out of the closet as a lesbian on her self-titled sitcom in 1997.
Almost 10 years later, she's one of TV's most popular personalities, hosting a top-rated daytime talk show and gearing up to host this spring's Academy Awards ceremony.
And then there's an example you probably didn't read about. Paul Bear, who ran a small bed-and-breakfast in the quiet town of Winnsboro, Texas, was outed in 2003 when a local newspaper ran an editorial about his love life.
Two years later, constantly plagued by harassment and threatening phone calls, Bear went on a cross-country gambling spree that ended when he hung himself from a tree, where his lifeless body was discovered by local cops.
Forced Out -- or Out by Choice?
These experiences represent the two extremes of outing. At one end is a public figure pressured into revealing her sexuality, which DeGeneres did in her own words. And at the other extreme is a private individual whose sexuality was publicly mocked and who was not given a chance to play any role in his outing, which drove Bear to his tragic end.
The difference between the two experiences brings up the question, Is it ever OK to out someone?
"You have Ted Haggard and [former Congressman] Mark Foley, who are living lives of hypocrisy, and then you have those who are just living their lives," says gay rights advocate Solomonese. "Who are we to judge that their lives should be out?"
But the president of Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation hesitated to condemn the practice. "We do not get involved in outing. We do not engage ourselves in such activity," says Neil Giuliano. "We take a neutral position."
In the next few months, fans should expect more gossipy speculation about some of their favorite stars -- and more public declarations of their sexuality. "I would never out my neighbor, a churchgoer," vows Lavandeira. "But if you're a politico or a celebrity, then you're fair game."
And what if those performers don't necessarily want to be outed? "They're choosing to live their private lives in the public eye. ... What are they ashamed of? The rules and the times are changing."