Paul Reubens in character as Pee Wee Herman. He is sitting in a red chair against a white background getting his photo taken. He is wearing a grey suit jacket with a white undershirt and a red bow tie. He has a pleasant smile on his face.

Editor’s note: This op-ed was originally published on March 18, 2016. Ruebens passed away July 31, 2023 at the age of 70.


Paul Reubens and the question of sexuality

In 2016, The New York Times ran a profile on Paul Reubens in anticipation of his latest film, Pee Wee’s Big Holiday. As a huge fan ever since I saw his HBO special in 1981, I devoured the article, hoping to get more insight into this comic genius and to find out more about the journey he’s been on trying to get this film made.  A lot of the article touched upon what a subversive artist he is from the diverse casting choices he makes to the countless sexual innuendoes laced throughout his work. 

But one line instantly put a pit in my stomach. It was a reference to the one problem I have always had with Mr. Reubens: Apparently, he still refuses to talk about his romantic life. In the year 2016.

You might be wondering why this is such a problem for me. Well, as an openly gay comedic artist, I think it’s important that successful men like Paul Reubens talk about their sexuality. Am I insinuating he is gay? Sure, but he has been doing the exact same thing through his work ever since he came on the scene — and continues to in his latest film —which features a relationship with Joe Manganiello he himself describes as, “a bit of a bromance.” 

Paul Reubens in character as Pee Wee Herman. His brow is raised in a humorous way and his mouth is open. He is wearing a grey suit jacket with a white undershirt and a red bow tie.

Manganiello’s casting and the star-studded, queer-friendly world of Paul Reubens

As soon as I found out Reubens cast Manganiello in the film, my gaydar went off.  Although straight, Joe is a gay icon, both for his strikingly good looks and the fact that he is an LGBTQ+ ally. Featuring a dream sequence that has the two men “jousting their poles” continues Reubens’ tradition of incorporating homoerotic undertones into his work.

If you have any doubt about this, all you need to do is take a look at Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special; easily the gayest holiday program ever to air on network television. Featuring appearances from Cher, Grace Jones, Zsa Zsa Gabor, KD Lang, Little Richard and two hunky, shirtless construction workers – the show is gayer than a GIF of a unicorn puking rainbows. And this was back in 1988!  But yet, almost 20 years later, Reubens still refuses to talk about his romantic life. 

This is problematic to me for a myriad of reasons. First off, Paul is a shrewd business man. He’s managed to make a successful career out of the same character for over 30 years. Reuben’s decision to not talk about his love life sends a message that you must avoid talking about your (non-heteronormative) sexuality if you want to get a major movie produced. Something, sadly, that just might be true. 

Paul Reubens in Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special. His character, Pee Wee Herman, stands in front of Santa Claus holding a plate full of cookies and milk. He has a confused look on his face and is surrounded by friends.

Business over authenticity? Reubens’ silence and Hollywood’s norms

Paul Reubens and David Arquette at 2007 Comic-Con International. San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA.

It took Reubens a long time to get this new film off the ground. Maybe he felt that talking about his sexuality might have further impaired his chances. But now that available on Netflix, I wish he would have used this opportunity to not flat-out refuse to talk about it.  By doing so, he’s basically saying he’s uncomfortable with something. 

Think about it.  Do you ever see straight celebrities refusing to talk about their love life?  The only people who do are the ones who think they have something to hide. Which, in turns, makes it seem as though they are ashamed or frightened of something. 

And hey, if by chance, he is straight, now would be the perfect time to talk about how he’s always been a supporter of the LBTGQ+ community – before it was even in style.

Historically, Hollywood has never been kind to its gay members, necessitating even to this day the closeted lifestyles of many well-known stars and numerous not so well-known actors who would all benefit from someone like Paul Reubens’ breaking his self-imposed silence. Perhaps the time has come where subversion is no longer needed and someone like Paul can be open about his sexuality without the worry of never being employed again. 

A plea to Paul Reubens: A call for LGBTQ+ advocacy and inclusivity

Flowers are placed at the star of Pee Wee Herman on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Monday, July. 31, 2023, in Los Angeles

So if you read this, Mr. Reubens, I’d like to thank you for validating my existence when I was a gay teen by delivering a veiled message that it was OK to be different. And now that I’m an adult and our world has evolved, I wish you would lift the curtain to send a stronger message to teens who might be struggling with their identities. Besides being a role model, you would also help break down barriers and pave the way for Hollywood to take a chance on producing projects with more diverse artists. After all, Pee Wee has never advocated shame to his audience. Neither should you. 

Hopefully soon, you’ll feel comfortable enough to take the lead from your alter ego and reveal just what your ‘secret word’ is. In the mean time, to paraphrase one of your biggest catchphrases, “I know you are, and so I am.”

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Greg Scarnici is a comedic artist (some confuse him with Fire Island personality Levonia Jenkins) and musician who currently works as an associate producer at Saturday Night Live. His first collection of humorous essays titled I Hope My Mother Doesn’t Read This is available as an ebook. Find out more about his work and connect with him via his social networks on www.gregscarnici.com

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