The John Travolta Saga: A Relic From the Past or an Enduring Reality?

Whether the latest allegations about John Travolta are true or not -- that he sexually harassed several men and had a secret relationship with his male private pilot for six years -- it's all pretty sad, the jokes and the snickering notwithstanding.
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Whether the latest allegations about John Travolta are true or not -- that he sexually harassed several men and had a secret relationship with his male private pilot for six years -- it's all pretty sad, the jokes and the snickering notwithstanding.

If false, after all, Travolta has been relentlessly targeted over a period of decades by ruthless people hellbent on destroying his career or getting money from him, perhaps rightly believing that such allegations, even if untrue, can still hurt an actor today. If true, he's closeted himself for much of his life -- and the psychological torment, the hiding, the inability to just go out in public and be himself, had led him to sometimes abuse others. If that's the case, he was perhaps enabled by powerful people around him in Hollywood who make lots of money off of him, in a way similar to how Michael Jackson was enabled by the people surrounding him in his own self-destructive behavior.

Either way, not a pretty picture.

What's fascinating about the story is how long all of this has been going on, complete with all of its 1980s subterfuge, seemingly a relic from the past in these days of out and proud celebrities. Travolta was one of the supermarket tabloids' first targets over 20 years ago, and yet, unlike the other targeted stars of the era, he's still their target today.

The first allegations came in May of 1990, when the National Enquirer ran with the allegations make by Paul Barresi, a former porn actor and former personal trainer, who said he'd had sex with Travolta "dozens of times" over a two year period. Much of the mainstream press picked up the story. Through his attorney's Travolta denied the allegations by Barresi, who was paid $100,000 by the Enquirer.

Outing of supposedly gay celebrities was brand new for the supermarket tabloids. The very first such story occurred only four months earlier when Chastity Bono was outed by the Star magazine as a lesbian, in January of 1990. (After denying it, Bono eventually came out as a lesbian and then, over a period of years, went on to transition as a transgender man, becoming Chaz Bono.) The second such outing was of the actor Richard Chamberlain, four months later in mid-April, reported to be gay and living with a man in the Star, the National Enquirer and the Globe, all in the same week. (Chamberlain denied the story as well, and denied being gay for many years, only to come out as gay in 2003.)

Travolta was the third alleged revelation, and the tabloids' new-found love of exposing homosexuality was in its own bizarre way a measure of progress. AIDS had pushed homosexuality out of the closet in the 1980s. Homosexuality had gone from being unspeakably scandalous (even the tabloids wouldn't go near it in the pre-1990 days, though they had no problems exposing extramarital affairs, boozing, drugs and out-of-wedlock babies by the stars) to finally being acceptably scandalous. After all, you can't go from unspeakable to just another mundane fact of life without first being acceptably scandalous, can you?

But Hollywood surely didn't know how to deal with this new reality, whether the reports were true or not. Within months of the story, Travolta announced his engagement to Kelly Preston, a fellow Scientologist. Barresi retracted his claims in a letter he wrote to Travolta's lawyer (he later said he did so under pressure), while Travolta and Preston soon were on magazine covers everywhere extolling their marriage.

The rumors and reports, however, didn't stop. Just a year later, in 1991, came a bombshell story in Time magazine about Scientology, "The Cult of Greed and Power." (Scientology lost a years-long defamation suit against Time.) The article stated that "high-level defectors claim that Travolta has long feared that if he defected, details of his sexual life would be made public." William Franks, the church's former chairman of the board is quoted as saying that "Travolta felt pretty intimidated about this getting out and told me so. There were no outright threats made, but it was implicit," he said. "If you leave they immediately start digging up everything." Time also noted that the church's former head of security, Richard Aznaran, "recalls a Scientology leader repeatedly joking to staffers about Travolta's allegedly promiscuous homosexual behavior."

Since then there's been allegation after allegation, accusation after accusation, scandal after scandal, as if time just froze for Travolta. Here we are, having moved into a different world, where courts are ruling that saying someone is gay is not defamation, where the president of the United States supports gay marriage, where homosexuality is slowly going from being acceptably scandalous to just being that mundane fact of life, and where gay celebrities are coming out -- or rather not closeting themselves in the first place. But the Travolta saga -- whatever the truth may be -- reminds us of how fear-inducing and traumatizing the issue of homosexuality always was, and, sadly, still is for many.

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