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Gay and lesbian celebrities on how leaving the closet impacts careers

Just 10 years ago, out gay and lesbian performance artists were the exception and their coming out prompted big headlines and extended public comment. Just think back, for example, to the media hoopla surrounding announcements by lesbian stars k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, and then Ellen Degeneres about their sexuality.

American society reflects a whole lot more relaxed attitude these days about out gay people in the entertainment world. Queer celebrities seem to be coming out of the woodwork, but is that really an accurate read on the realities of show business? If so, what price does their openness exact on their careers?

Richard Nahem, a well known New York City events planner, gets to the root of these questions with his upcoming panel, “The Importance Of Being Out: A Celebration Of The Gay Artist.” In a forum that is part of his series “The Art of Creation,” Nahem welcomes actors B.D. Wong and Lea Delaria; writers Bob Morris, Sarah Schulman, Larry Kramer, and Doug Wright; famed Barney’s window designer and author Simon Doonan, party promoter Chi Chi Valenti; and choreographer Richard Move to discuss the artistic impact of gays and lesbians on American culture and the future of gay culture itself. Maer Roshan, founder of Radar magazine, will moderate the panel.

The event will benefit the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the city’s oldest organization assisting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth that runs the Harvey Milk High School, and The Trevor Helpline, a suicide hotline for gay youth.

“Popular culture and media have been so prevalent in the past 50 years, I wanted to talk about gay culture—where it’s going, and where it is now?” said Nahem. “Being that gays are becoming so much more accepted in gay society, are we losing our edge?”

Nahem started these panels in 2001, after an appearance by gay author Michael Cunningham at the New York Public Library inspired his interest in the topic. At the time, Nahem was enrolled in a creativity seminar and for his class project, decided to explore what inspired other artists, gay and otherwise. He put together an event that drew 175 people who came out a panel that musician Laurie Anderson, choreographer Stephen Petronio, the band Fisherspooner, and Jonathan Sheffer, the creator and artistic director of EOS Orchestra. That December, he did it again, inviting Sarah Jessica Parker from “Sex and the City,” Cunningham, actor and playwright Charles Busch, and playwright Moises Kauffman to talk about 9/11 and the effect it was having on their work.

This year, Nahem sought to do a panel to coincide with Gay Pride.

“I wanted to have a panel of gay artists talk about gay culture—what effects gay artists have had on our culture,” said Nahem. “Being that the proceeds are going to youth organizations, I want them to talk about the future of gay culture, maybe even address the 20 students from Hetrick-Martin who will be in the audience, to speak to young people and say something about the future of gay culture.”

Nahem chose the panelists from among 50 artists he felt were most relevant in the community. Nahem prefers spontaneity in his panels and hasn’t spent time prepping the panelists beforehand, but he was willing to provide a hint at the kinds of questions moderator Roshan might be raising: Do you feel the impact of your work as a gay or lesbian artist is diminished by the mainstreaming of gay culture? Is queer culture dead, and if not, how do you see it in 20 years? Do you think legalization of gay marriage will change our culture?

Roshan, whom Nahem counts as an old friend, was called upon because, as Nahem puts it, “He puts people at ease, makes the discussion very intimate, yet still asks the provocative questions.”

Nahem hopes the panelists will not only challenge the audience, but also each other.

“One of the bonuses was at the first one, Laurie Anderson acknowledged me, and thanked me for meeting the other artists,” Nahem recalled. “The people on the panel also inspire each other. I remember Charles Busch talking to Sarah Jessica Parker after one panel about wanting to work on a project together.”

Nahem will host two additional panels this year. In October, he brings together people who moved to New York to find fame and success for “New York Dream Makers,” and in November, he will host, “The Art of Collaborat­ion,” about the inherent difficulties artists face working together on different projects.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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