How do you solve a problem like James Franco? Promoting his new gay-themed film “King Cobra,” about the 2007 murder of gay porn producer Bryan Kocis, the multi-hyphenate discussed his sexuality—yet again—in a sitdown with New York magazine. Referring to himself as a “gay cock tease,” Franco called himself a “little gay,” while emphasizing that he’s straight. “There is a bit of over focusing on my sexuality, both by the straight press and the gay press, and so the first question is 'Why do they care?’'' the 38-year-old said. “Well, because I’m a celebrity, so I guess they care who I’m having sex with.”
At face value, James Franco’s approach to sexuality sounds very progressive, and it appears to be coming from a good place. In an excerpt from his 2016 book, “Straight James / Gay James,” Franco claimed that his intent is to question the boundaries of sexuality. “I am a figure who can show the straight community that many of their definitions are outdated and boring,” the actor wrote. “And I can also show the gay community that many of the things about themselves that they are giving up to join the straight community are actually valuable and beautiful.”
The problem isn’t just that Franco doesn’t need to liberate the gays, who are doing OK on their own. It’s that much of his logic about what constitutes queerness actually ends up reinforcing many of the notions he intends to shatter.
What does it mean to be a “little gay?” As recent examples have proven, the answer is almost nothing at all. Earlier this year, musician Olly Murs appeared to come out in an interview with British tabloid newspaper The Sun, in which he claimed to be “20 percent” homosexual. But his reasoning was based less on sexuality than the fact that he’s comfortable with queer people. “I’ve got a lot of gay friends I get on with really well,” Murs claimed. “I get on with everyone. Everyone’s got a bit of campness about them.”
Murs, of course, was responding to an earlier interview from Sacha Baron Cohen, known for playing gay characters in films like “Brüno” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” In an interview with E! News, the 44-year-old actor—who most recently appeared in “The Brothers Grimsby”—said that his sexuality fluctuates. On average, he’s “23 percent gay.” “Sometimes I’m 31, depends on the situation,” Cohen said. “When I was doing ‘Borat’ and I had the testicles at my chin, I was at 31.” His comments were not warmly received on the Internet, labeled as “obnoxious.”
This might confuse you: Why would be a bad thing to acknowledge that you might fall somewhere along the spectrum of sexuality? For the most part, it isn’t. In a 2015 poll, YouGov found that nearly half of Britons between the ages of 18 and 24 identified as not exclusively heterosexual. This was also true of nearly a quarter of adults living in the U.K., a result of rapidly changing attitudes when it comes to queerness. In a 2015 report for The Daily Beast, Samantha Allen called millennials “the gayest generation.” Her declaration was in response to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute finding that nearly seven percent of millennials identify as a member of the LGBT community.
But if a new generation of young people are redefining notions of sexuality and even gender as being binary, the “little bit gay” logic serves to do the opposite. In an infamous 2011 interview with Playboy, James Franco claimed that sexuality shouldn’t be defined by the fact of intercourse alone. “Between World War I and World War II, straight guys could have sex with other guys and still be perceived as straight as long as they acted masculine,” he said. “Whether you were considered a ‘fairy’ or a ‘queer’ back then wasn’t based on sexual acts so much as outward behavior.”
What folks like Sacha Baron Cohen and Olly Murs really mean when they quantify their gayness isn’t that they’re part of the community or even attracted to other men. It’s about the very word Franco emphasizes: “behavior.” In his musical persona, the fresh-faced Murs favors a dandy-like aesthetic that borrows heavily from gay culture. He’s a little bit James Dean and a little bit Kurt from “Glee.” On the cover of “Attitude,” a gay magazine based in the U.K., Murs poses with unbuttoned jeans and a leather jacket over his bear torso. Gifted with the cherubic face of a Chelsea twink, the singer strikes a Kenneth Anger pose, and the cover doesn’t shy away from the provocation: It promises that he “gets dirty.” The bait is right on the label.
Perhaps you’ve heard about this behavior classified as “queerbaiting,” when actors and entertainers present themselves as being queer up to the point of actually having sex with men. In television, queerbaiting allows programs like “Supernatural” and “Rizzoli and Isles” to dangle the possibility of same-sex intimacy without ever following through. On the TVTropes website, there’s a valuable entry on the subject called “Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss,” in which TV producers use the spectacle of two women kissing to draw in viewers, only to never mention it again. Remember that one time on “Friends” Jennifer Aniston locked lips with Winona Ryder?
But this is about more than being that girl at the party who makes who with another woman to get attention. The “little bit gay” phenomenon is base appropriation, mistaking things like posing on a magazine, or wearing a ridiculous swimsuit because you are paid to be in a movie, with actual queerness. James Franco can play Allen Ginsberg in “Howl” and produce all the gay porn thrillers he wants, but there’s a big difference between participating in gay culture and actually experiencing it. Whether Franco likes it or not, being queer is about who you’re attracted to: If not, anti-sodomy laws criminalizing same-sex intercourse wouldn’t remain on the books in 11 states, even after the Supreme Court struck them down in 2003. Otherwise, LGBT people wouldn’t continue to be kicked out of their homes, beaten, and murdered every day.
That’s not to say that James Franco doesn’t have anything meaningful to contribute to the conversation. As the actor Zachary Quinto pointed out in an interview with Huffington Post Live, Franco’s institutional power and privilege gives him the ability to get projects bankrolled that gay actors simply wouldn’t have the clout for. (Can’t you practically hear a studio executive calling an Alan Cumming movie “too niche?”) “King Cobra” might be a good film, and reviews have been positive, but getting it made doesn’t make him a member of the club in any way, not even a little. There’s no such thing as “gay James Franco.” There’s only the straight one, and trust me—one is more than enough.