Welcome to "Gay Founding Fathers," an exclusive series that goes back—sometimes way back—through queer culture to introduce you to gay men who made a difference, made history, made us swoon, and just plain made us be proud to be who we are.
Showbiz is a notoriously tough game for actors, especially if they’re not willing to play by the rules. Image is everything, and one misstep can turn even the Hollywood royalty into box-office poison faster than you can scream, “Cut!” But this week’s entry in our Gay Founding Father series, actor turned interior designer Billy Haines, managed to buck that trend with a career second act that was even more successful—and honest—than his first.
Born on Jan. 2, 1900 in Staunton, Virginia, Haines became fascinated with movies as a child and spent a great deal of time watching silent films at the local theater. Recognizing his homosexuality at an early age, he ran away from home with a boyfriend to the bigger city of Hopewell, where the two opened up a dance hall. But Haines knew there was more out there waiting for him, so like thousands of other young men with big dreams, he moved to New York City, working odd jobs, modeling, and becoming a presence in Greenwich Village’s burgeoning gay community.
He soon struck pay dirt. Spotted by a talent scout, who was taken by the 20-year-old’s handsome good looks and silver screen appeal, Haines signed a $40-a-week contract with mega movie producer Samuel Goldwyn. His career started small with a string of small supporting roles in less-than-memorable films, but...