The Rise Of The A-List Celesbian And Why It Matters
More female celebrities are out and proud than ever before. Hannah Jane Parkinson explores the reasons behind this sea change – and the impact it’s having far beyond the entertainment businessRejoice! The term ‘gal pal’ is no more. Gal pal as euphemism for: ‘a woman who seems to be in a same-sex relationship with this famous woman, but we are a family newspaper’. As a perfect case study, allow me to present this 2015 Daily Mail headline: ‘Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella’. What would be the natural progression from this story? ‘Kristen Stewart gets touchy- feely walking down the aisle with her gal pal, also the co-adoptee of her two small children’? ‘Kristen Stewart, 89, and still touchy-feely, has moved into LGBT retirement home with gal pal?’
Mercifully, the landscape has changed (and Stewart is no longer with her longtime assistant Cargile). There are increasingly more out gay and bisexual women in the entertainment industry. It’s difficult to be all wink-wink, nudge-nudge about two women dating when they are, say, walking down Sunset Boulevard with their hands in each other’s back jeans pockets and not giving a toss (Stewart and current girlfriend, model Stella Maxwell). Or waving rainbow flags at Pride rallies (the bisexual Amber Heard). Or getting married and winning at Instagram with the photos (Orange Is The New Black star and 2017 icon Samira Wiley and her writer-wife Lauren Morelli). Or just declaring in an interview: ‘I think that being in love with my girlfriend is a big part of why I’m feeling so happy with who I am these days.’ (Cara Delevingne on then-girlfriend Annie Clark, better known as musician St. Vincent). This is the rise of the celesbians – inspiring everything from new love stories being told on stage and screen to... people like me. I’m now in my late 20s, but when I was growing up, it just wasn’t the case I could flip open a magazine and see lesbian couples to make me feel totally normal, which might even be a reason why it took me so long to embrace my orientation. Out female celebrities did exist, but they weren’t mainstream, or else their sexuality was presented as edginess, marking them as outliers.
So, what’s changed? It’s possible a new generation of stars is just more sexually fluid – up to a quarter of Millennials are supposed to define as LGBTQ. But clearly something has also shifted and, rapidly, within the entertainment industry. Just four years ago, a survey of its members by SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, found that more than half of LGB performers had heard homophobic comments on set. Of all respondents, a third thought casting agents, directors and producers might be biased against LGBT performers, and among LGBT actors alone, this rose to 53%. LGBT actors were also found to earn lower daily average rates, and 9% had been turned down for a role because of their sexuality.
At one time, most LGBT actors were in the closet. An excellent memoir by a man called Scotty Bowers details his time as fixer for the underground affairs of gay Hollywood stars, securing dates for Cary Grant in carparks. In the more recent past, actors were still being routinely advised to keep their sexuality under wraps. Some explained they did not want it to distract from their performances; the less audiences know about their personal lives, the stronger their suspension of disbelief. (Ben Whishaw is openly gay, but doesn’t talk about it much for precisely this reason.) But others have admitted they hid their sexuality either for fear of its career impact or to avoid becoming tabloid fodder (and in particular for women dating women, titillating fodder).
In his profoundly moving coming-out speech at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner in late 2013, Prison Break star Wentworth Miller said, ‘I chose to lie, I chose to dissemble, because when I thought about the possibility of coming out, about how that might impact me and the career I’d worked so hard for, I was filled with fear.’
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, which fosters inclusion and LGBT equality in the industry, tells me: ‘Coming out is a personal choice and there are many reasons why someone decides to come out or not’, but that ‘at GLAAD, we know that sharing personal stories helps accelerate acceptance – and, when celebrities come out, it gives LGBT young people hope and lets them know they’re not alone.’ In a world in which LGBT youth still experience disproportionately high rates of mental illness and suicide, this is important.
The original celesbian was Ellen DeGeneres. Now America’s sweetheart, she has even been honoured with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom by Barack Obama. But when DeGeneres came out in 1997, with a Time magazine cover declaring, ‘Yep, I’m gay’ (pretty unequivocal, that) her sitcom show ratings briefly spiked with intrigue, before they dropped, the network pulled promotion and it was axed all together months later (DeGeneres has said she was ‘devastated’). Awarding her the Medal Of Freedom in 2016, Obama said, ‘She did pay a price. For a pretty long period of time – even in Hollywood.’
Now, DeGeneres is cited as a hero by many gay women. She paved the way for the likes of another Ellen, Ellen Page, whose incredible coming-out speech in 2014 contained the line, ‘I’m here today because I’m gay’. The list of out gay or bisexual female celebrities just keeps getting longer. As well as those mentioned above (Stewart, Delevingne, Maxwell, Clark, Heard, DeGeneres), there is also Miley Cyrus, Cynthia Nixon, Anna Calvi, Sarah Paulson, Halsey, Saturday Night Live’s inimitable Kate McKinnon (SNL was the show in which Stewart declared herself ‘like, so gay, dude’), and Michelle Rodriguez – and that’s just to name a few. More and more, it seems even the coming-out speech is a thing of the past – celebrities are happy to just to be papped with a same-sex partner, no big deal.
It’s not just in front of the camera that Hollywood and the music business are becoming more diverse. Some of the most powerful players in the industry are now gay women. Megan Ellison, the billionaire movie producer who has brought us films including Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle, is out and proud. Ditto Cindy Holland, VP of Netflix’s original content. Nina Jacobson is a super-executive responsible for producing The Hunger Games films (and inspiring headlines such as ‘Nina Jacobson Has Her Revenge On Hollywood’s Old Boys’ Network’ in the New York Times). All3Media’s EVC of scripted programming, Nina Lederman, is pictured draped across her wife’s lap in a Variety spread. When I ask Minnie Driver who comes to mind as a super-successful gay woman in the industry, she points me in the direction of her friend, Christine Gernon, the director of Gavin & Stacey and now producing and directing Driver’s new smash vehicle Speechless. Then there’s Jill Soloway, responsible for the sublime Amazon hit about a parent’s transition later in life, Transparent. This influx of fabulous gay and queer women behind the scenes is shaping and re-establishing the on-screen stories we are being told.
GLAAD’s Ellis confirms, telling me, ‘When cast and writers’ rooms are diverse, everyone benefits. It’s crucial that when telling stories about people’s experiences, people who have lived those experiences are a big part of the creative process.’ Ellis also points to Lena Waithe’s recent Emmy award win for Outstanding Writing For A Comedy Series for an episode of Master Of None. Waithe, who is the first black woman to win the award, wrote the episode based on her coming-out experience.
Orange Is The New Black is another example. It is also proof that straight female actors nowadays have no problem with taking on gay roles (the show’s initial romantic central pairing is played by the straight Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon). See also: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes’ Carol, or Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in the forthcoming movie Disobedience.
I ask Aisling Bea, who is straight but who has already played a lesbian in ITV drama, The Town, about her experiences. ‘I wouldn’t think twice about a role that was a gay part at all – it doesn’t matter to me or most actors I would imagine.’ Gay actors such as Sarah Paulson frequently play straight roles, too.
The importance of LGBT visibility, the kind that I and gay women older than me often missed out on, is paramount. Ruth Hunt, chief executive of Stonewall, tells me that out gay celebrities in particular are important for young people, and ‘enable people who might not have LGBT friends and family to learn about these issues’. Hunt mentions a number of lesbian stars and also trans women such as Laverne Cox.
But if audiences are embracing out lesbian and trans women celebrities and on-screen characters, is this the same for gay and trans men?
Throughout history, men have borne the brunt of homophobia – lesbianism was never criminalised in the UK, for instance. Though of course women face prejudice, the shit we have to deal with is often more men treating us as objects of sexual gratification (‘Can I join in?’ a regular lascivious comment from men who witness me snogging my girlfriend in the street). Meanwhile, gay men are more likely to be subjected to violence.
I put it to comedian Matt Lucas: has he faced discrimination in the industry as an out performer? ‘I don’t recall experiencing any overt negativity about it, but then I guess in the US I arrived with some status, off the back of successful TV shows in the UK. If I was American, unknown and starting out, it might be different.’
He continues, ‘US casting tends to be more literal. Consequently, I get offered a lot more gay roles than I do in UK TV. I don’t know what it’s like for lesbian or bisexual performers but if – as I suspect – there are fewer bisexual and lesbian characters, then it may well be more difficult to get work.’
I ask whether he feels people have a responsibility to come out? His answer is almost enough for me to get my rainbow flag out: ‘Many of us who would have struggled in the past breathe much more easily now, and this is in part due to the sacrifices made by those who went before us. So how do we pay it forward? I feel that if the sacrifice actors make by being out is that they have fewer casting opportunities, then so be it. It’s nothing in comparison.
‘I think that anyone who is out to their friends and families but not to the public shouldn’t be afraid to come out. The air is much cleaner when you do.’
But male actors who want to carve out Hollywood leading man roles (or have already) clearly still do keep their sexuality under wraps; rumours abound of action stars in faux-heterosexual relationships for this purpose. Unfortunately, perhaps their concerns remain understandable – how many big, straight, leading man roles has Wentworth Miller landed since his coming out? It is possible that men still have more progress to make.
It is no-bullshit attitudes such as Lucas’s however, that have, in the case of celebrity lesbian women, made euphemistic gal-pal headlines look ridiculous and made it easier for magazines to put gay women on the covers and still sell. Linda Riley is an out gay woman and a publishing star in an industry dominated by straight men, and she’s pleased with this new direction in mainstream publishing (Riley publishes theiconiclesbianDIVAmagazine).She does, however, offer an interesting caveat that not all press is created equal, and there is still more to do. ‘The press is far more relaxed about lesbian relationships – and that includes the tabloids – but unfortunately this new-found maturity is not always present, where publishers remain transfixed by what two women might choose to do in their bedroom.’
She’s right. There are still articles which treat women’s relationships as titillating or part of a phase. There are still bisexual women mislabelled as gay. There are cynical columnists who suggest celesbian couplings are a ploy to raise the pro les of the stars involved. But given that most women dating women are more likely to be flicking the bird at paparazzi lenses rather than grinning into them, this doesn’t seem likely. In fact, women-on-women relationships as performative attention seeking, thankfully seems to be a thing of the past (yes, short-lived ’90s girlband t.A.T.u, I’m looking at you).
One could even argue that the term celesbian itself is somewhat frivolous and zeitgeisty, but it’s a term of affection rather than rejection and, let’s face it, there’s a portmanteau for everything these days. Personally, I don’t mind it at all because I won’t pretend I haven’t found myself at 3am scrolling through Google Images looking at photos of adorable same-sex female celebrity couples and whispering, ‘My people’. It’s a happy emotional gay paradox: on the one hand, I still get excited to witness out lesbian couples because it’s always heartening to see one’s identity reflected in the public sphere, but at the same time, I rejoice because same-sex female couples are so common as to almost be banal. I’m thrilled that so many women are out and proud – but also thrilled that nobody really cares any more.
Cara Delevingne’s recent Instagram post revealing Harvey Weinstein’s attempt to persuade her to engage in a threesome with him and another woman demonstrates there’s still a long way to go. This is the sort of gross thing that has been slurred to me across bars by lecherous men, or jokingly tossed into supermarket queue conversations with my girlfriend.
I think of Obama’s phrase: even in Hollywood. Even in the supposed bastion of liberal leftism. And then I think of another thing that Linda Riley told me: ‘let’s not get complacent!’ It would be great if the next survey SAG-AFTRA do returns no instances of homophobic comments on set; if no actor had to even think twice about coming out; if audiences automatically didn’t conflate actors’ personal orientation with their on-screen characters.
I think of comments Amber Heard once made on the red carpet: ‘I see all the actors that I work with, people that I know, that are living two lives. I can’t help thinking that if you’re hiding something, no matter how good your reason, then you’re ashamed of it. I have a lot to risk. And a lot of people who have come before me had a lot to risk. But I’d rather go down for doing what’s right, than rise for doing what’s wrong’.
And that’s why the trope of the celesbian isn’t frivolous at all.