David Burtka | Gay Iconography | Neil Patrick Harris

Gay Iconography: Neil Patrick Harris Is America's Out Sweetheart


The phrase "gay icon" gets tossed around a lot, but why is it that some figures amass more of a gay audience? Welcome to Gay Iconography, a feature where we present a proposed iconic figure or character and then ask you to weigh in with your thoughts. 

“I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest."

With those words, Neil Patrick Harris became the most visible openly gay actor in Hollywood. He wasn't the first out actor, but his coming out in 2006 marked a turning point. He bucked the narrative of gay actors' inability to convincingly play straight.

Not only did he play straight -- he played really straight. Whether it was as the womanizing Barney Stinson on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, or in the over-the-top portrayal of Neil Patrick Harris (not quite himself) in the Harold and Kumar series, NPH became the proof point about out actors in hetero roles. His relatively drama-free coming out -- absent the hand-wringing of the time that plagued the likes of Lance Bass and T.R. Knight -- only further endeared him to audiences.

It didn't hurt, of course, that he's almost supernaturally charming, handsome and talented. A singer, dancer, actor and all-around weapon of mass likability, Harris' appeal is tough to resist.

Check out some legen … wait for it … dary NPH moments and share your thoughts on the former Doogie Howser, M.D., AFTER THE JUMP


Harris made his mainstream debut in 1989 on ABC's Doogie Howser, M.D. as a teenage doctor. The show ran for four seasons from 1989 to 1993, and earned Harris a Golden Globe nomination. (Plus it had that great theme song.)



He came out in 2006, quickly addressing gossip that surfaced about him and his partner, David Burtka. "There was...media scrutiny heading my way. People were starting to ask for stories of other people that may have fooled around with me, and the last thing you want to do is talk about your private life based on scandal," he told Ellen. Since that time, many have looked to Harris as a paragon for "normalcy." (He and Burtka have been engaged since 2006, and had twins via surrogate in 2010.) In addition to his It Gets Better video, he was also a co-host at the Democratic National Committee's LGBT Gala in 2011 for President Obama and active with the Human Rights Campaign's Americans for Marriage Equality initiative.



Harris was so successful in his hyper-sexual (and hyper-straight) portrayal of Barney Stinson, Entertainment Weekly named him one of the Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years. His character's advice for better living was collected in the super aggro-sounding guide, The Bro Code. His raunchy, drug-addled character from the Harold and Kumar series was such a hit in the original film that he was at the center of the sequel's marketing.



In addition to his acting chops, NPH can sing, too. He won an Emmy for his guest spot on Glee, where he out-sang Matthew Morrison's Will Shuester to Aerosmith's "Dream On." He's honed his craft on Broadway, appearing in musicals, including Cabaret and Assassins, as well as drama Proof. He returns to Broadway this year as the lead in Hedwig And the Angry Inch.



All this experience on stage and screen has made Harris the perfect choice to host a live award show. He can tackle a big opening musical number, he can land a great, witty zinger and he's got the charm to keep what's usually a bloated affair from feeling too, too interminable. Above, he opens the 2011 Tony Awards with a tongue-in-cheek musical number about how Broadway is not just for gays anymore (and he handles some other stars' flubbed lines with such grace).

What makes you love NPH? Or are you somehow resistent to his charms? Tell us in the comments!

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  1. If you're going to be a gay icon, I think you need to have done something for us than just exist. So far Neil has come out and...that's it. I'm not slamming him, I'm just saying that we appear to be willing to give accolades to people simply for admitting that they are gay. No thank you - charity work, artistic contribution, or heroism: otherwise you are just a gay person who a lot of people like.

    Posted by: Tigernan | Mar 8, 2014 12:22:03 PM

  2. an icon is a mythic figure. overcoming tragedy is a big part of the myth.
    mr. harris has not had to cope (and hopefully never will) with the traumas that make a legend.

    an icon is a larger than life personality who commands and absorbs attention. NPH is a talented and likable man, but he's not charismatic. He doesn't the "it" that makes a true star.

    Posted by: verbocityeric | Mar 8, 2014 12:40:56 PM

  3. For some gay men no male could ever qualify for "gay icon" status. These queens have totally rejected masculinity and their identity as men and they see women as the ideal role models. It's tragic, twisted and perverse. Personally, give me Neal Patrick Harris over Kathy "my gays" Griffin any day.

    Posted by: Ronan Mahon | Mar 8, 2014 1:06:12 PM

  4. This is the silliest, stupidest, most pointless column on Towleroad.

    Posted by: peterparker | Mar 8, 2014 1:43:34 PM

  5. Back in 2006, Towleroad reported that Neil Patrick Harris's publicist claimed of the actor: "He's not of that persuasion."

    Never forget that.

    Posted by: Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman in 2016 | Mar 8, 2014 1:52:36 PM

  6. I don't think the general public sees him as gay. He's too "normal".

    Posted by: anon | Mar 8, 2014 1:55:53 PM

  7. NPH is much more of a gay icon than these female singers Andy posts in the sense that he's been one of the most out and visible (and happily engaged -- with children!) actors of his generation. This has more positive value, socially, for gay men and women than all the Donna Summer hits you can currently find at a garage sale.

    Posted by: will | Mar 8, 2014 2:01:28 PM

  8. I'm a big fan. I look forward to every award show he hosts. Maybe he should get the Oscars, hmm...

    Posted by: SpaceCadet | Mar 8, 2014 3:32:06 PM

  9. I would say a handsome, talented, gainfully employed, drug-free, std-free, family man that happens to be gay is an excellent contribution to the gay community. If you think just existing as LGBT is easy, you must live outside the Southern or Midwestern U.S. The normalcy, likability, and visibility of Ellen and NPH is a form of activism in its own right. There was a time when celebrities couldn't live the way NPH does and still find work. We should support the members of our tribe that are out and visible, even if they're not spearheading court cases or picketing Chick-Fil-A.

    Posted by: Jason R. | Mar 8, 2014 3:38:06 PM

  10. He may not be a "icon" but he's one helluva role model for any young man, straight or gay.

    Posted by: Lazycrockett | Mar 8, 2014 3:44:37 PM

  11. Ever since his Out interview where he put down non-conformist people and said he was trying to be "normal" I found him to be a complete wanker. I am happy if he is just being himself and if he has a happy family, but I don't like his attitude and He's definitely no icon of mine.

    Posted by: Graphicjack | Mar 8, 2014 5:45:09 PM

  12. I don't know from icons; I just think he's magnificent.

    Posted by: Kyle M. Sullivan | Mar 8, 2014 8:10:42 PM

  13. Something about him rubs me the wrong way. It's like he acts nice, but his eyes are not involved. He comes across as fairly cold and phony to me.

    Posted by: AJ | Mar 8, 2014 8:58:40 PM

  14. I don't have anything against him other than the fact he's a professional nebbish. He's just not icon material. Ricky martin and Mario Lopez are more of the icon stuff.

    Posted by: enchantra | Mar 8, 2014 10:19:37 PM

  15. He's definitely an icon. But much more importantly, he is a role model. Stable, hardworking, in a loving relationship, raising a family, and contributing to his community. And the trans activists hate him, so that alone makes him awesome.

    That's a role model for LGB youth. Not dysfunctional straight actresses who died of drug overdoses.

    Posted by: Frank | Mar 9, 2014 6:04:40 AM

  16. A talented but tedious narcissist.

    Posted by: DC | Mar 9, 2014 10:46:46 AM

  17. I've always thought he was a smug prick.

    Posted by: D.R.H. | Mar 9, 2014 8:14:16 PM

  18. Yes, Harris's publicist said he was "not of that persuasion," but it was clearly against his wishes and instructions, because it was at most only 2 days later when Harris gave his coming-out statement to People Magazine. Part of his statement included this gem, designed to let everyone know how angry he was about the "not of that persuasion" nonsense: "...rather than ignore those who choose to publish their opinions without actually talking to me, I am happy to dispel any rumors or misconceptions and am quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest and feel most fortunate to be working with wonderful people in the business I love."

    Posted by: Thomasina | Mar 10, 2014 2:10:18 PM

  19. Normal Harris will lead us all to a beautiful bland and beige utopia. Don't fasten your seatbelt - no bumps for this ride.

    Posted by: Regina | Mar 19, 2014 7:49:05 PM

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