Neil Patrick Harris, currently starring as Hedwig on Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is naked on the cover of Rolling Stone. If Rolling Stone’s slideshow of “racy covers” is to be the definitive source, this is the first time an openly gay man has appeared naked on the cover of the magazine. Change has come to America! Why hello there, change. Looking good.
At this point it feels almost perfunctory for someone as universally adored as Harris to wind up on the cover. Is he an especially daring choice for Rolling Stone? The nudity is hardly an eyebrow-raiser for the magazine; Julia Louis-Dreyfus posed nude on the April 24th cover, with the Constitution inked on her back. And Harris is a critical darling, star of a (mostly) adored long-running sitcom, repeat host of both the Tony and Emmy Awards. I could have put Harris on that list of celebrities who it has become socially unacceptable to dislike. But Harris appearing on this cover is still a big deal, or at least a medium deal: to have Harris pictured, in this way in this space, is a celebration not just of his work but of his sexuality, and his ownership of it.
This isn’t a photograph of someone who is gay and is passing for straight. It’s an aggressive, in-your-face image (perhaps not surprising, given the photographer is Terry Richardson) that doesn’t try to dress homosexuality up in a way that would be palatable for skittish straight people.
Harris making the cover matters like Lupita N’yongo being named People’s Most Beautiful matters, like Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood Issue featuring six black actors — half of the actors included — this year matters. (For context, last year’s cover included only two actors of color, neither of whom made the first panel.) And obviously we still care enough about the prime media real estate that is a major magazine cover to get fired up over choices with which we disagree; the uproar over Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s face gracing an issue just two months after the Boston Marathon bombing comes most readily to mind, as does the Kim and Kanye April cover of Vogue. These choices of cover stars do still matter, and they probably will continue to matter until print media up and dies for real.
In the interview with Brian Hiatt, Harris says that coming out was the opposite of career kryptonite. “Once all the cards were on the table, I got more opportunities than ever. Some actors don’t get hired because you can’t look into their soul and see what they’re like, because they’re kept guarded.” Hats off to that! Or, wait, actually, maybe just keep the hat right where it is.