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Charlton Heston's turbulent gay history

by Ann Turner, Gay Wired

Legendary actor Charlton Heston died on Saturday at the age of 83. The iconic actor of such films as Ben Hur and Soylent Green died at his home in Beverly Hills with his wife, Lydia Clarke Heston, by his side. Heston is survived by son Fraser Clarke Heston, daughter Holly Ann Heston, and three grandchildren.

Heston's family released a statement on Saturday confirming the actor's death. "We knew him as an adoring husband, a kind and devoted father, and a gentle grandfather, with an infectious sense of humor," the statement said, according to CNN.com. "He served these far greater roles with tremendous faith, courage and dignity. He loved deeply, and he was deeply loved."

Known for playing some of the most notable figures in history, Heston starred in over 100 movies, including such landmark films as The Ten Commandments, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes and The Big Country. Heston won an Academy Award in 1960 for his starring role in Ben Hur. He was also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1972.

Off the screen, Heston was known as a champion for civil rights and often spoke out against the evils of racism. In a radical move for the time in 1961, Heston joined a picket line outside of a movie theater premiering one of his films because the theater segregated its audiences. He also accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights march held in Washington, D.C. in 1963.

"Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life. He was known for his chiselled jaw, broad shoulders and resonating voice, and, of course, for the roles he played," Heston's family said, according to The Press Association. "No one could ask for a fuller life than his. No man could have given more to his family, to his profession, and to his country."

In the 80's and 90's, Heston's political views shifted more to the right and he openly opposed affirmative action and abortion. In 1998, Heston was elected President of the National Rifle Association and was a strong proponent of gun rights. In a speech at the 1998 NRA Convention, Republican Heston criticized President Bill Clinton over his policies regarding gun rights, saying, "Mr. Clinton, sir, America didn't trust you with our health-care system. America didn't trust you with gays in the military. America doesn't trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure, Lord, don't trust you with our guns."

Although Heston talked about and praised the "brilliantly talented homosexuals" he worked with during his career, he was often accused of being homophobic, especially later in his life.

In a 1997 speech at the Free Congress Foundation's 20th Anniversary Gala, Heston was criticized by gay rights groups, including GLAAD, for derogatory remarks made toward the gay community. In the speech, Heston demonstrated both tolerance and discrimination against gays in almost equal measure.

"Many homosexuals are hugely talented artists and executives... also dear friends. I don't despise their lifestyle, though I don't share it," Heston stated. "As long as gay and lesbian Americans are as productive, law-abiding and private as the rest of us, I think America owes them absolute tolerance. It's the right thing to do."

"But on the other hand," Heston continued. "I find my blood pressure rising when Clinton's cultural shock troops participate in homosexual-rights fund-raisers but boycott gun-rights fund-raisers... and then claim it's time to place homosexual men in tents with Boy Scouts, and suggest that sperm donor babies born into lesbian relationships are somehow better served and more loved."

Contrasting his anti-gay statements over the years, Heston is notable for playing several gay positive characters in film, including Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, and in his most critically acclaimed film, Ben Hur—penned by openly gay icon Gore Vidal. Heston, however, claimed publicly that none of the characters he inhabited were intended to have gay subtext.

Shortly after being elected as President of the NRA in 1998, Heston was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which eventually went into remission. Heston revealed in 2002 that he was suffering from the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. He stepped down as president of the NRA in 2003 and by 2005 had retreated from the public world for the most part due to continuing illness.

An official cause of death has not yet been released. A private memorial is planned for Heston's family and friends.









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Originally published on Monday April 7, 2008.


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