Purple Passions

Mark Simpson on lavender marriage – between the closeted star & the public.

(Independent on Sunday, August 1995)

[One from the vaults for LBGTQIA++ Pride. Probably because it came on the cowboy heels of Male Impersonators (1994), it’s rather more pretentious – and with fewer gags – than later work. I miss when newspapers had room and time for dilly-dallying disquisitions. (Come to think of it, I miss newspapers.) I also talk a lot about ‘stars’. Remember them? Before everyone became slebs. Pretentious nor not, the final line proved pretty prescient.]

Michael Barrymore’s to come out about his homosexuality earlier this week produced a flurry of headlines about the UK’s most popular TV personality’s ‘bizarre double life’ – as if no one homosexual had ever married before.

The history of ‘lavender marriages’, as they are often called, is a long one. Especially in Hollywood, where image is naturally always preferable to reality. In the fifties, when any sexual indiscretion, let alone homosexuality, was box office poison, Rock Hudson was forced by his studio to marry his assistant Phyllis Gates when his homosexual romps threatened to surface in the gossip columns. Like most male leads of the time, both his ‘purity’ and his sexual allure would have been destroyed by such revelations. Cary Grant married several times for similar reasons, while the true love of his life was reportedly Randolph Scott (a frustration for which his wives suffered his fists).

The same factors held true for women. In the twenties Tallulah Bankhead got hitched, despite her famous saying: ‘Darling, my parents warned me about men and alcohol – but they never said anything about women and drugs.’ While Marlene Dietrich married Rudy Steiner but kept her ‘sewing circle’ of devastating young women, including Mercedes Da Costa. Like many others who entered into lavender marriages she was able to continue indulging her own preferences to her heart’s content privately while maintaining to the world ‘But darling – I’m a married woman!’.

As Barrymore has shown, the fears that force homosexual stars into lavender marriages do not belong to a pre-war world. Elton John hastily got married in the supposedly liberal seventies after testing the water with allusions to his ‘bisexuality’. The fashion designer Calvin Klein married in 1986 at the height of the Reaganite moral crusade, after spending most of the seventies and early eighties partying on Fire Island, New York’s famous gay resort, according to a recent biography which he tried to suppress. That a seventies glam pop star and a fashion designer felt it necessary to play this game says a great deal about attitudes in the seventies and eighties.

All these people have been, in some sense, ‘living a lie’ to further their careers. But what, it might be asked, is so ‘sham’ or ‘bizarre’ about lavender marriages compared to other star marriages, where image and status are also the guiding principles? The fact that one or both of the parties involved may prefer a different sex in bed to the one which they happen to be married to is perhaps a minor detail which might actually help the growth of real friendship.

The great irony of star marriages is that they are, like lavender marriages, frequently essentially contractual, business-type partnerships and yet they are always used to further the historically very recent ideal of the romantic marriage in which both parties are supposed to find sexual, personal, emotional if not spiritual fulfilment in each other – and no one else. An even greater irony is that the romantic ideal of star marriages may have helped the development of the gay identity itself and hence the lavender marriage.

Once marriage became so suffocatingly all-embracing, many of those who preferred the same sex (even on a part-time basis) found they could no longer survive in that institution and pursued first ‘bachelordom’ or ‘spinsterhood’, and then, as these fell into disrepute, they felt obliged to ‘marry’ their sexual preference instead. Announcing their homosexuality to the world – literally declaring their love, and its authenticity, in the same ritual manner as is required at the altar. Appropriately enough, the term ‘coming out’ is a phrase taken from the nuptial world of debs balls.

Marriage itself is no longer a series of obligations and instead a fantastical institution in which one is nowadays supposed to literally find not just another but oneself. This makes the marriages of fantasy figures – stars – such a completely overdetermined phenomenon. The ostensible purpose of a lavender marriage might be to keep the details of the stars real sex life from the public, but this is only because the public wants to be deceived. Lavender marriages occur to maintain a pretence – a deceit that both parties, star and fans, are implicated in.

Lavender marriages provide a pretext for the continued disavowal of the very queerness, the very odd contradictions which make the star so popular (‘But darling, I’m a married woman’). Rock Hudson was such a heart-throb for millions of fifties housewives precisely because he was so virile yet so undemanding, so manly yet so soft. Barrymore was so popular with the masses because he was so ‘versatile’, so good at oo-er-missus campery and bantering with the bricklayers and squaddies that trooped onto his shows – awoight!

In a curious mirror-relationship, marriage allows the public and the star to enjoy queerness as well as repress it and return it to the unconscious. So, when Elton John and Michael Barrymore tell us that they hoped marriage would suppress their homosexuality – they mean publicly and personally.

And this is precisely why Richard Gere’s and Cindy Crawford’s recent full-page advert in The London Times advertising their loving heterosexuality was so comically self-defeating – it put into words the function of the magic ritual of marriage; it expressed what was supposed to be repressed. Hence also the futility of Nicole Kidman’s wager about her husband Tom Cruise to a US magazine in an attempt to scupper rumours of his homosexuality: ‘I’ll bet all the money I’ve ever made, plus his, that he doesn’t have a gay lover or a gay life.’

The Kidman gambit betrays something other than desperation: that they still consider that everything they have – all their money and all their fame – might be taken away from them if they were revealed to be involved in a lavender marriage. Of course, as with Crawford and Gere this is always mixed with protestations that there is ‘nothing wrong’ with being gay. The stars are caught in a bind – they realise that audiences attitudes are changing, that they don’t have as much to fear as Rock Hudson did in his time, but their instincts tell them, probably rightly, that liberal attitudes are just skin deep and that lies are always safer than the truth.

In the end, lavender marriages will only cease when they stop working – and the very fact that rumours of the homosexuality of married stars are now deemed acceptable copy is a sign that they are already losing their mojo.

Stars must reflect and contain the aspirations and desperations of their audience. The curse of stars is not that they are full of contradictions, but that they are full of the contradictions of their fans. It can be no coincidence that in the same week that Barrymore’s marriage was revealed as a ‘sham’, figures were published showing yet another rise in the divorce rates. The exposure of the ‘sham’ marriage of a gay star fascinates and obsesses the public so much because every marriage has its dark secrets, its role play, its sexual and gender ‘confusions’, its pretences.

By ‘confessing’ he had been ‘living a lie’ Barrymore refused to take those contradictions with him to his (early) grave, and has instead asked his audience to try and resolve them with him. It remains to be seen whether they will accept this new contract, which asks them to deal with the very things Barrymore existed to contain.

Or whether they will instead sue for divorce from him on the grounds of mental cruelty.