Wanda Sykes on Rosie Radio
Laurie K. Schenden
What started as a respectful little chat between two high-profile female performers last week evolved into a discussion on the gay celebrity burden. Both Wanda Sykes and Rosie O’Donnell started out as standup comics, both married women, have children and have become spokeswomen for the gay community.
When Wanda called Rosie’s radio show on Sirius XM, they began dishing about their personal lives and coming out. Rosie reveals that she felt pressured by the gay community. That’s not so surprising, but do celebrities "owe" anything to the community, merely because they happen to be famous and LGB or T?
If it weren’t for celebrities cozying up to Americans in their living rooms, LGBT people might still be seeing themselves portrayed primarily as murderers, degenerates and flaming fools.
For several years I’ve been working on an oral history project featuring famous women who were pressured into acknowledging their sexuality in public. Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, Amanda Bearse ("Married, With Children") and former California State Sen. Sheila Kuehl among them.
Martina Navratilova is still indignant over the press hounding her on the tennis tour, prodding her to admit she is gay. "They wouldn’t dare ask anyone on the men’s tennis tour a question like that," she said.
Rosie told Wanda that she felt "stalked" by Judy Wieder, a former editor at The Advocate who urged her to come out in print. One might argue that Judy simply wanted to sell magazines. But anyone who’s seen the impact of having a celebrity come out—and Judy has time and again--is eager to get celebrities to fess up because it enlightens the mainstream and ultimately makes it easier for everyone else.
When Amanda Bearse moved to an Atlanta suburb to raise her daughter, she believed that her fame gave her an added cushion; a little more heft than if she were just a lesbian mom moving in down the street.
While famous people are scrutinized differently than those who don’t have that bit of glamour to shield them from reactive hatred and discrimination, or at least soften the blows, they also have more people eager to find them out. Remember Diane Sawyer asking Clay Aiken if he is gay, embarrassing him on national TV?
People who don’t think it’s such a big deal to come out have never heard of the Trevor Project (dealing with gay teen suicide), the Point Foundation (gives financial support to gay college students disowned by family) or GLAAD, the media watchdog that scrutinizes the way the media portray LGBT people, and myriad other organizations that support people who suffer because of their sexuality.
No celebrity has ever said to me that she regretted coming out--even Billie Jean King, who suffered personally and financially (losing endorsements) after being publicly outted by an ex. Many call it "freeing," not having to pretend to be someone they're not.
Wanda Sykes made the choice to come out on her own terms, because she felt personally attacked by Prop 8. She was at a rally and invited to say hi, she told Rosie’s radio audience.
"I went up and just started running my mouth… I was so pissed off … I just felt I had to speak up."
She admitted to the anti-Prop 8 audience that she recently married a woman. "I don’t really talk about my sexual orientation, I didn’t feel I had to … anyone who knows me personally [knows] I’m gay. If we had equal rights we wouldn’t, we shouldn’t have to be standing out here demanding something that we automatically should have as citizens of this country."
A political issue also motivated O’Donnell to come out. At the time Florida was removing a child being raised by two men because they were gay.
Celebrities don’t always follow an LGBT "party line" because they have their own agendas. Rosie happens to care about children, she’s donated millions of dollars for their benefit.
I don’t believe you can scream about human rights, then try to dictate how people should live their lives just because they’re celebrities and can help your cause. Hopefully at some point they’ll realize on their own that their fame can lead to acceptance for all of us.
It’s no one’s "duty" to come out but yes, it does make a difference.