Like most of my lesbian and bi women friends, I have been an avid follower of the stories of both Ellen Morgan and Ellen DeGeneres. It’s all been quite exciting, and I’ve been right there on the sidelines, cheering, and writing my letters of support to corporate sponsors and disappointment to non-sponsors. I am overall pleased by the way the media has covered the coming out of the (real) Ellen DeGeneres and the (fictional) Ellen Morgan. But I’m not entirely comfortable by the coverage given to Anne Heche and her sudden conversion to Ellen-ism.
It seems that people are more disturbed by Heche’s sudden “conversion” than they are by Ellen’s born-that-way lesbianism. Apparently, Oprah and her followers were so unsettled by Anne Heche’s disclosure of her sudden, unprecedented and unexpected attraction to Ellen, given her history of heterosexuality (including two years with actor Steve Martin) that Oprah dedicated her May 5 show to the subject, focusing on the old nature/nurture question, and whether it is possible for someone to suddenly “turn” gay. Oprah brought in a roster of heavy hitters: lots of scientists, historians and professional queers, including science writer Chandler Burr, historian Jonathan Ned Katz, lesbian-sexpert-and-a-longtime-poster-lesbian-now-in-love-with-a-man Joann Loulan, and Judy Weider (editor of the Advocate). There was no consensus of opinion here, but what did come up is that studies are pointing toward a partial correlation between biological and/or genetic factors and sexual orientation for men, but not for women. As Chandler Burr stated: “Women are much more biologically complex.” The words “fluid” and “continuum” came up more than once to describe women’s sexuality. Surprisingly, given the nature of the discussion, the word “bisexual” was mentioned only once, when Oprah asked Loulan if she was one, and Loulan more or less said she wasn’t, just a lesbian in love with a man.
But back to Anne Heche: all sorts of conclusions are being drawn about her identity, and intentionality attributed to decision to come out about her love for Ellen DeGeneris. As Richard Goldstein opined in the Village Voice (5/6/97), “Only in an age of Pentecostal urges could it seem credible for a woman who has never felt a twinge of queer desire to be sexually born again. Yet, that’s what Heche professes. She’s in love with DeGeneres, but there’s been no awakening; it just fell out of the blue, like being touched by an angel‑‑or in this case, perhaps, an agent. … Her handlers had to come up with the ultimate Hollywood spin, and they did: She’s out, but not gay; she tells, but not all…” What is it that he is accusing Heche of not telling us? Goldstein continues, “Heche is betting that, if she dangles the promise of availability‑‑by insisting she never had a lesbian encounter before Ellen, and implying that her next lover could be a man‑‑she will embody enough of the trad fantasy to lure us into the brave new world. So what if this scenario plays to the most benighted ideas about gay recruiting? So what if it reinvents the closet in the guise of candor. Speaking truth to power is one thing, but why bite the beast that feeds you?”
Goldstein is hinting that Heche’s intentions may be less than honorable. Is she lying about never having been attracted to a woman? Is she “really” a straight actress seeking publicity by pretending to be in love with Ellen? Is she “really” a lesbian who is “playing” ambigious because it’s safer? Did she invent the whole scenario to promote her own career? Why is it so hard for Goldstein to believe that she might actually be telling us her truth?
Another interesting theme in the print media is the question of whether it will be possible for Heche to remain credible as an actor now that it is known that she is in love with a woman. One would almost think that at the moment of coming out as a woman in love with another woman, one negates one’s entire history. “Everything that happened before today no longer counts.” But while the reality is for some of us that our histories prior to coming out feel false, scripted roles that we were acting out before arriving at our current and much better-fitting awareness and identities, for others our past DOES count, IS meaningful, and DOES inform our current identities. The reality is that there are more choices than just gay or straight. Some of us may fall somewhere nearer the middle of the Kinsey scale and STILL choose to be out and to publicly declare our queer identities. I’m one of those: a public, out, proud, loud and queer bisexual.
So here’s something else that really upsets me: In all of these discussions, what in the world happened to the word “bisexual”? Why has that word been so consistently avoided? Anne Heche is being read by most people as a born-again lesbian. And she may be . But then again she may not. She may be bisexual, or she may choose not to label at all. She hasn’t told us. What she did say on Oprah was “’I didn’t all of a sudden feel that I’m gay… I didn’t feel all of a sudden an epiphany…the only epiphany I had is that I’m in love with Ellen” (5/7/97).
Anne Heche is not in love with all women. She’s in love with Ellen DeGeneres. After all, it’s individual, real people we fall in love with, not entire sexes. Let’s celebrate this love that she and Ellen DeGeneres have found, and let’s all respect Anne Heche’s right to define her own identity, in her own sweet time. After all, it has only been a couple of months since she met Ellen. I think she’s very brave.
An earlier verson of this essay appeared on May 16, 1997 in the Gay People’s Chronicle.