Before joining the cast of Glee in 2009, the Calgary native knew nothing in particular about gay folks, or musical theater. But he would learn to sing and dance, and go on to become a vocal proponent for gay rights and marriage equality, appearing at the GLAAD Awards, the HRC National Dinner with girlfriend and castmates Lea Michelle, Chris Colfer and Amber Riley, and adding his voice to the Straight But Not Narrow campaign in 2011, an effort to encourage young straight guys to show support for young gay guys. He spoke eloquently in 2012 about his own gay rights education: “Being aligned with Glee has absolutely made me more aware of it. It’s one of the defining challenges at this point in our human evolution. This is the equivalent human rights struggle for our generation. We’re going to look back 50 years from now and be shocked that this is what we’re having to deal with.”
Following, some other gay rights allies, silenced too young.
Kurt Cobain, 1967-1994
Cobain was outspoken in his support of gay rights. In one of his journals, he wrote: “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes.” In Nirvana’s “All Apologies” he sings the sentiment one step further: “Everyone is gay.”
River Phoenix, 1970-1993
The actor and musician was a thoughtful advocate for all kinds of causes, and his portrayal of street kid Mike in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, opposite Keanu Reeves, was a brave choice back in 1991. While the film and Phoenix both became gay iconography, the young actor seemed ambivalent: “People, to some degree, do not want to let go of something you portray.”
Heath Ledger, 1979-2008
Like Phoenix, Ledger broke ground portraying a gay lead character, Ennis Del Mar, in Brokeback Mountain. While not vocal in his political views, the fact that the up and coming actor accepted the role was hailed as brave; his performance was universally affecting. Ten years earlier, Ledger was given the choice of two roles in the Australian TV series Sweat. He chose the gay guy. Ledger and costar Jake Gyllenhaal were inducted into the Advocate Hall of Fame in 2006.
Natasha Richardson, 1963-2009
Richardson was a member of the Redgrave acting dynasty and an advocate for people with HIV/AIDS. Her mother was Vanessa Redgrave; her father, Academy Award-winning director Tony Richardson, died of AIDS in 1991. Natasha worked with AIDS organizations here and in the UK, including Bailey House, God’s Love We Deliver, and Mothers’ Voices in the US and Aids Crisis Trust and National Aids Trust, for which she was an ambassador, in the UK. She received amfAR’s Award of Courage in November 2000.
Anna Nicole Smith, 1967-2007
The actress, Playboy model, and widow of 89 year-old oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall was vocal in her support of gay causes, appearing in the LA Pride Parade and introducing America to flamboyant West Hollywood interior designer Bobby Trendy on her self-titled reality show on E! in 2002. And she was fierce!
John Ritter, 1948-2003
As a straight man playing a straight man playing a sympathetic gay character on Three’s Company, Ritter was an gay rights proponent by default, but his widow Amy Yasbeck says his advocacy extended into his personal life: “When Tinky Winky was accused of being gay, John went out and bought two Tinkys. It was adorable. He supported Tinky’s lifestyle like nobody’s business. John was very liberal when it came to Tinky Winky and anybody’s lifestyle.”
Patrick Swayze, 1952-2009
In 1995, Swayze starred in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and became a gay rights believer. “It was interesting to go from a narrow minded, limited heterosexual point of view into a much more open-minded point of view… For me, [To Wong Foo is] a drag queen movie that reinstates family values.”
Whitney Houston, 1963-2012
In 2000, gay icon Whitney Houston sat down with Out magazine for her first “gay interview,” a fascinating and very candid session revealing Houston to have a history with, and appreciation for, gay people as audience, friends and colleagues. But she made it clear, if you were wondering: she wasn’t gay. “I love everybody. If I was gay, I would be proud to tell you.”
Judy Garland, 1922-1969
A gay ally in death perhaps even more than while she was living, Garland’s exit from the stage in 1969 at the too-young age of 47 helped inspire the Stonewall Riots, a singular turning point in the fight for gay rights.