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Coming out in Hollywood not always easy

By Jill Martin, Special to CNN
Actress Portia de Rossi (left) and Ellen DeGeneres exchanged vows in 2008.
Actress Portia de Rossi (left) and Ellen DeGeneres exchanged vows in 2008.
  • Actress Meredith Baxter announced she is a lesbian
  • Ellen DeGeneres publicly came out of the closet in 1997
  • British actor Rupert Everett advises caution to actors before deciding to come out
  • Hollywood insiders expect more celebrities to openly discuss their sexuality

(CNN) -- Meredith Baxter's recent revelation that she is a lesbian resonates with other celebrities who have been forced to discuss their sexuality publicly after gossip and tabloid speculation put a spotlight on the issue.

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres used her trademark comedy to reveal herself as a lesbian back in 1997, and Neil Patrick Harris, who played a teen doctor on the television show "Doogie Howser, M.D." 20 years ago, told People magazine in 2006 that he is a "content gay man." Before the interview, Harris' sexual orientation was the subject of widespread speculation.

Baxter's publicist Howard Bragman explains that the time was right for the actress to come out -- even though she had been dating women for several years. Bragman has been shepherding gay celebrities out of the closet since Dick Sargent, who played Darrin Stephens, the beleaguered husband on "Bewitched," came out in 1991.

Recently, when asked by the National Enquirer whether she was gay, Baxter decided to make the media rounds. She agreed to interviews with NBC's "Today," Sirius XM Radio's "The Frank DeCaro Show" and The Advocate.

"When a celebrity is being chased by the tabloids, you want to own the story, instead of have the story own you," Bragman says.

And of course, by telling her story on her terms, Baxter can harness the publicity.

Bragman -- author of the book "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?", which includes a chapter devoted to coming out -- says that Baxter will have a book of her own to promote soon. Bragman says the biography, which Baxter is working on now, should hit stores in the next year or so.

Many actors are wary of whether the public will embrace their real identity or whether the revelation could restrict the roles they are offered.

British actor Rupert Everett recently told the British newspaper The Observer that he "would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out."

For some actors, that decision is made for them.

Danny Pintauro, who played the lovable little brother on "Who's the Boss?" for eight seasons, says the National Enquirer broke the story of his homosexuality while he was an undergraduate at Stanford University more than 10 years ago. He agreed to be interviewed for the article and is philosophical about the incident.

"If it hadn't been the Enquirer, it would have been something else," he says. "I was actually glad it had happened."

Pintauro says that the revelation did not hurt his acting career, which he resumed after graduating from Stanford, but it did have an impact.

"Everyone in the country knew I was gay, so the attempt to play someone straight was hard," he remembers. "And I wasn't sure I wanted to. I was very comfortable being gay."

Confirming rumors about his sexuality has not seemed to derail Harris' career. He stars in the long-running CBS comedy "How I Met Your Mother" as a womanizing bank executive and hosted the Emmys in September.

Mitchell Anderson, who played gay violin teacher Ross Werkman on the 1990s drama "Party of Five," says he appreciates having more homosexual actors, such as Harris, in the public eye.

His decision to come out as a gay man in 1996 was spontaneous, and, he points out, a rarity at the time. Ellen DeGeneres didn't make her landmark announcement until the following year.

Still, Anderson says, "I believe it helped me as an actor. I don't think my career suffered at all." He said that the ability to be honest about being gay allowed him to improve his work, and to help develop a story line in which his character adopted a child.

Bragman says we will hear more announcements like Baxter's in the coming years -- and to expect them from big stars.

"We live in a very transparent society," he says. "There is no such thing as a secret anymore."