Old Hollywood had a terrific time keeping many of its best-known stars’ sexuality under wraps. Quite a few big screen icons were gay, including some of the “manliest” of leading men.
The ladies had their problems with publicity, too. Lesbians in Hollywood: they’ve always been there, just not as visibly as they are today.
Marlene Dietrich, a notorious switch-hitter, got away with it because she was discreet, and nothing was ever publicly played out. Her mannish behavior (wearing men’s suits, etc.) was considered by the sheeple to be merely eccentric and
Tallulah Bankhead was another notorious dabbler. Sometimes, tiring of the company of men, she sought solace in female arms. Again, her activities were not publicized outside the circle of Hollywood’s elite. Her quirkiness let her get away without much scandal in her lifetime.
Other women were more guarded and had much on the line in terms of career and reputation.
Elsa Lanchester, the minor actress famed for her iconic title role in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), was rumored over the course of her career to have lesbian tendencies. She married closeted gay actor/director, Charles Laughton. The couple never had children; in a 1962 book (following Laughton’s death) she claimed the couple never had sex (despite being married for 33 years).
Barbara Stanwyck, however, was an A-lister. On-screen, she was a leading lady: a tough gun moll, a stripper, or rancher. You name it, Barbara Stanwyck probably played it. She was also a closeted lesbian. Though married more than once, it seems she was at the least “bi”, engaging in a relatively open “Boston marriage” with her female assistant for years. One of the attractions for her in accepting the role of Victoria Barkley in the late 1960s’ ABC TV Western, “The Big Valley”, stemmed from the fact she got to butch it up in men’s clothing. She spent her life in the shadows—her status as a star depended upon it.
Agnes Moorehead, another fine screen actress (though probably best known for her recurring role of Endora on the 1964-1972 hit sitcom, Bewitched”) was another who kept her sexuality under wraps. [In a show that also featured the gay Paul Lynde and Dick Sargent, the “second” Darrin Stevens.]
On the rare side of the closeted lesbian coin was groundbreaking black comedienne and social commentator Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1894-1975; born Loretta Mary Aiken). She had been raped by an older black man when she was eleven (the same year her father was killed in an accident) and by a white sheriff when she was thirteen. Both assaults led to pregnancies that she carried to term and gave up for adoption.
Her mother remarried and was killed in an accident when she was 14; her stepfather, perhaps not wanting to deal with her any longer (there were a total of 16 children in the household) married her off to a much older black man that she did not care for one bit. The young Loretta ran away and joined up with a vaudeville team working the chitlin’ circuit, Butterbeans and Susie.
From there she developed the frumpy persona of “Moms”—with a frowsy housedress, a sloppy cloche knit hat, and (later in life) toothless—a loveable, though sometimes ascerbic, grandmotherly comedic type.
Off-stage, though, was a different story. Perhaps thanks to her bad experiences with men starting at the age of eleven Moms was a “ladies’ woman”. As early as the late 1920s she dressed in men’s tailored suits (which she could well afford, earning $10,000 per week at her peak). She was also very butch, and kept a girlfriend on hand in her dressing room. Like any Lothario of the day, she surrounded herself with young, attractive women.
And her lesbianism was no secret, at least in the black community: off-stage she gambled, drank, and smoked with her fellow male performers, and she was known as “Mr. Jackie” or “Mr. Moms”. And no one ever made an issue of it.
“Celesbrities”: An Introduction
Today, lesbians in Hollywood have an advantage that their spiritual foremothers never had. It does not mean that their lives are necessarily breezy or problem-free; it just means there is more acceptance today of homosexuals without its being the career-ender it would have been as little as 40 years ago. Certainly, these women in their own way probably had to play the “normal” game that many girls face when they realize they are gay: dating boys and men, even marrying and giving birth. However, their level of comfort in such relationships can only be strained.
Unfortunately, Hollywood has its share of lesbian posers, women I have decided to call “celesbrities” (pronounced, “suh-LEZ-brit-eez”—feel free to use my new word). These are women who have led “straight” lives but then trade suddenly to the other team. Mostly, they are young and insincere. Recent years have given us celesbrities Lindsay Lohan (probably nothing more than a bid for attention); Cynthia Nixon (of “Sex and the City”); and Anne Heche (just a flake).
However, Hollywood has some genuinely talented women who have either recently “come out” or have been out for a very long time. These are some of the lesbians I love.
Meredith went on to star in almost countless projects, big screen and small. However, she is best known as the mother on the long-lived sitcom “Family Ties” in the 1980s. Meredith Baxter made a great television mom—she was practical, but she was also gorgeous and fun in her part as Elyse Keaton. America loved her.
After “Family Ties” folded its tent, Meredith went on to other guest-starring roles (most memorably, at least for me, as Agent Lily Rush’s alcoholic mother on the defunct crime series “Cold Case”). Meredith is a terrific actress, and I have never seen her perform badly (I have seen her take roles that I thought were beneath her, but even in dreck she does a good job).
Meredith is an extremely brave woman. She started her first same-sex relationship in 2002, but didn’t officially “come out” until 2009. This decision for her had to be both traumatic and a relief. Having spent her whole life perceived as one kind of woman in the public’s mind (a “straight” woman) suddenly she had a chance to embrace her true self.
It needs to be understood that unlike today, a young Meredith Baxter could not have been as accepted in the Hollywood community. It is almost certain the producers of “Family Ties” would not have even considered her for their “wholesome” family sitcom had she been “out” when it premiered. [This is a much different situation than the one faced years later by the openly gay Amanda Bearse of “Married . . . With Children”. As the neighbor Marcy D’Arcy, she played a heterosexual female. That show did not worry about prudery. Amanda went on to direct countless episodes of the show as well as star in it until its finale.]
Probably the toughest thing for Meredith to face would have been a backlash: “C’mon! Elyse Keaton can’t be gay!!” Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and America still seems to love her.
“Little House on the Prairie” TV-star Melissa Gilbert’s little sis, she went on to play the morose Darlene Conner on the long-running sitcom, “Roseanne”. It was while working on “Roseanne” and dating co-star Johnny Galecki she realized she was gay. However, Sara’s
Sara did great guest-star recurrences on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and as a character on CBS’ wildly successful sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory”. Today, she is a talk-show talking head on “The Talk”. [This is a show I’ve never watched. I’m assuming it’s a spin on “The View”—which I hate—so I’ll never know, just making an educated guess.]
However, Sara Gilbert (born 1975) is one of that handful of Hollywoodites that one actually respects—yes, she’s had a few sparkling, bad girl moments, but nothing like the Lohans of her purview.
Sara is a quiet person leading a quiet working life. In October 2011, she was rumored in a relationship with rocker-turned-producer Linda Perry (front woman of the Nineties’ band, 4 Non-Blondes). The pair married legally in March 2014, and Sara gave birth to “their” son in February 2015 (I’ve no idea who the sperm donor was, and I don’t care).
But speaking of Linda Perry . . .
Linda Perry is what one might call a Renaissance Woman, and she has been openly gay her whole adult life (born in 1965). She is an accomplished musician, songwriter, and producer, and has worked with the best of them. She’s played on umpteen albums, and she’s written hits for many artists (Pink’s “Get the Party Started”, for one). Though rumored in a relationship with Sara Gilbert in October 2011, confirmation of this didn’t come until December 2011. Linda could do worse. So could Sara. The two seem of kindred spirits.
And on March 30, 2014, thanks to more enlightened legislation, she and Sara Gilbert were able to tie the knot, thus ensuring they are as miserable as the rest of we hetero married folk.
This is one of the few women in the world that when I learned she was gay I felt disappointment. [It did not hurt my feelings in any way when Rosie O’Donnell came out—duh! It will also come as no surprise, shock, or disappointment to me when Lady Gaga finally “comes out” and tells the world she/he/it is either a man or a pre- or post-op tranny. Or an extraterrestrial.]
I don’t know why knowing Portia is gay bothered me. I mean, it’s not as if I really had a shot at her. I made the male, hetero-piggy statement one time to a lesbian in reference to Portia, “What a waste!” This lesbian put me right in my place by snapping back, “Trust me, it’s not going to waste!”
Portia de Rossi, as the vanguard of lipstick lesbians (shunning the flannel, the Doc Martens, and the buzz cuts) glamorously dresses up what Americans probably perceive to be a seedy and somehow “dirty” lifestyle “choice”. I’m pretty sure being gay isn’t a choice (unless you’re Lindsay Lohan or Cynthia Nixon); but it is very cool to see the finely-tuned machine that is Portia de Rossi out there all glammed up as a more mainstream-appealing, real, living, breathing lesbian.
In the wake of her marriage to Ellen DeGeneres, Portia changed her name legally to Portia Lee James DeGeneres. Ellen definitely traded wayyyyy up with this one (from Anne Heche, the celesbrity she was in a relationship with before Portia).
NBC is planning a reboot of The Munsters for Fall 2012. And guess who is confirmed as the actress playing the iconic role of Yvonne De Carlo's Lily Munster? None other than the luscious Portia! [The show never materialized in any meaningful way. A pilot movie aired, which was an epic fail, and that was the end of it.]
Wanda spent her formative entertaining years honing her stand-up craft, and it is some of the best I’ve ever heard. She always moves on with fresh material, and her quirky insights into things like relationships and child-rearing are hilarious. More recently, she’s been working regularly as an actress, both on the big screen (Evan Almighty, My Super Ex-Girlfriend) and the small (“The New Adventures of Old Christine”).
Wanda was married to a man from 1991-1998. She came out in 2008, and then married a woman she’d met back in 2006. She has never made a big deal out of being gay, either in her stand-up or in interviews. I recall one time she casually mentioned her “wife” in a passing comment to Jay Leno—this was when California first allowed gay marriage. That’s about it. Wanda is Wanda—she doesn’t define herself by her sexuality. She’s a comedian.
That’s a Wrap
Choices had to be made. In the past society’s expectations of women’s roles forced them into corners. One must be conflicted living as a closeted homosexual, living against one’s very nature. The strain this can cause is inconceivable to those of us who are heterosexual. The only way I can reconcile such agony in my mind is to imagine being forced into a series of relationships with men: that level of imagined discomfort is perhaps a fraction of what it must feel like for any closeted homosexual. They are forced to live a lie.
None of these women define themselves by their sexuality any more than I define myself by mine. I don’t make a point of opening every conversation with, “Hi, I’m Vic; I’m a flaming heterosexual.” It would be absurd.
Instead, these women live their lives and do their jobs, and most of us just look at them for what they are: three actresses, a rocker, and one of the funniest comics to walk the planet. These are the lesbians I love. And I don’t love them for being lesbians—I love them for their bravery and their talents.