I don't know who to lay the praise at the feet of with this issue. Would it be Ellen? *thinks back* I don't think so. She came out in '97 (although, let's face it, the closet door had always been open - she just finally walked out), and Neil Patrick Harris came out in '06, but when he came out, his career didn't skip a beat in spite of playing a VERY heterosexual man on his sitcom. Ellen, otoh, lost her show and found life a bit difficult after her coming out - until her talk show.
It's really difficult to try and figure out who really made it all right to come out today, but the number of 'actors' who have done so since NPH could be a good indication? The key being the fact that NPH was and is an AC-TOR. Not a comedian, not a singer, not only on Broadway (where it's far easier to be openly gay), but a bona-fide actor playing straight roles. Sure, Lance Bass also came out in '06, but that really surprised no one and he was a singer. T.R. Knight came out in '06, just not by choice (thanks to Isaiah Washington and that whole Grey's Anatomy kerfuffle) and he's not found much work since - although that could be the fault of the Grey's Anatomy producers (I suspect some blackballing for both he and Isaiah Washington).
And it's not like others hadn't come out prior to 2006, there were. Actors like Rupert Everett, who, even though he came out in the 80's, it wasn't well known over here until much later - and he says it hurt his career once it did become common knowledge over here (like stating that he wanted to do a gay James Bond). But of all those who came before, I think NPH kind of became the example for succeeding now. It could even be said that since his coming out, NPH has had a bigger career than before, which must have really given hope to other gay actors still in the closet.
I think it was '06 when John Barrowman came out but I'm not sure - anyone out there who can tell me for sure? - and he's certainly made a huge impact, but overall, NPH is probably better known? And if we look at the number of major 'celebrities/actors/media' men - and women - who've come out since '06, well, WOW. So I find myself thinking that Ellen proved you could be successful, but NPH proved you could play a straight character on mainstream television and the show would continue its success. So I'm thinking, yeah, he might be the one to receive extra credit.
And why am I posting about this?
Because it struck me that since last October, two of my favorite 'actors' have come out and, so far, have not had their careers affected. And yeah, I'm talking about Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer. Oh, and very recently, Anderson Cooper (although for many of us, he wasn't a big surprise but he made it *official*). I think Anderson is pretty safe as he's not an actor, and only time will tell if either Zachary or Matt survive beyond a tv series and movie franchise. But at least there appears to be more hope than in the past?
I can't think of any from before '06; meaning OUT actors who continued to play straight characters and have love scenes with the opposite sex. Although, some would say that Cynthia Nixon might be an exception, I don't because she herself has stated that she's "...just a woman who fell in love with another woman" and whom had previously been quite happy with her relationships with men (of course, that does make her perfect for us slash writers who like to write, for example, Jim and Blair as previously straight, but who fall for each other *G*).
Maybe at this point, some credit to President Obama for his switched position on gay marriage (whether sincere or political or a bit of both, it still had a huge impact) should be given? Maybe his switch could be as much responsible as NPH for those who finally felt comfortable enough to come out so recently? Heck, when your President gives gay marriage a thumbs up - well, it's hard not to act. :) I did a quick survey of celebs who have come out since NPH - and in no particular order of 'outing' in each year's category (and if I've left anyone out, let me know):
Sean Hayes (official, but again, insiders and savvy audiences knew/suspected)
Anna Paquin (bi)
Jane Lynch (official)
Adam Lambert (official, but really, only for form, we all knew)
Clay Aiken (officially, but again, insiders and savvy audiences knew/suspected)
David Hyde Pierce
My mind is a weird place. No one should go there. I'm gonna go eat now because I have no idea why I wrote this....