June 28, 1997
Ever since Ellen DeGeneres came out to the masses on national television, Rosie O'Donnell hasn't gotten any relief.
"Come on . . . you all love her . . . let's talk about her," the Rosie O'Donnell chat board on AOL says (keyword: Rosie). Well, fans certainly have. The Internet acts as a huge rumor amplifier, electrifying whispers of gossip to glass-shattering levels.
Since DeGeneres, the third-most-talked-about media figure in AOL's Gay and Lesbian Community Forum (keyword: GLCF), after DeGeneres and the TV warrior princess Xena, is O'Donnell. The AOL Rosie board also buzzes with similar talk. No Koosh Ball- throwin' Rosie fan can surf these areas without wading through endless threads on whether O'Donnell is a lesbian and, if so, whether it's her duty to make it known to the public.
"Hats off to Ellen for coming out of the closet! How long will it be till Rosie follows?" one poster declares. "Gays and Lesbians would help enormously to the cause if they come out. . . . PLEASE, come out and join the fight!"
Others question the relevance of coming out to the masses. "Was Babe Ruth called 'A Heterosexual Role Model Baseball Player'?" Kid C 31 asks. "I don't think so. . . . Then why does Rosie O'Donnell need to be identified as 'A Lesbian Role-Model Talk-Show Hostess'?"
Whether she's gay or not, O'Donnell certainly supports the gay community-her June 20 show was dedicated to the Day of Compassion, an AIDS-awareness campaign. Still, to judge from recent events, O'Donnell and her PR machinery are touchy about the topic. Here's a story first reported by syndicated gay columnist Billy Masters: A few months back, AOL member and Rosie fan Teresa DeVaney wrote an amusing post about the talk-show host that O'Donnell read on the air. She then offered DeVaney tickets to the show. When DeVaney later posted a message on GLCF saying she'd yell out during the taping of the show and ask O'Donnell why she doesn't come out, a member of Rosie’s staff yanked the tickets.
DeVaney insists the post was a "sarcastic commentary" about the debate over O'Donnell's sexual orientation, and she had no intention of doing any such thing. "To paraphrase, what I said was, 'You guys take up a collection, give me a $100, and I'll ASK her when I go to the show and you can put this dead horse out to pasture,'" DeVaney E-mails me. Nonetheless, she admits, "It appeared as though I were threatening to 'scream out.'"
O'Donnell herself wrote a response to this post on AOL's Rosie chat board: "You have the right to believe whatever you do, to be proud of who you are, and to admire those you consider to be brave. You do not have the right to demand that celebrities act in a manner you consider to be appropriate, regardless of their, or your sexuality." Ouch!
The story has a happy ending. Later O'Donnell pulled DeVaney into a private chat room and they cleared up the misunderstanding. The ticket offer was reinstated.
O'Donnell's not the only one under the microscope these days. In April syndicated columnist Liz Smith dropped the hint that one of the longest-running TV stars is considering coming out of the closet. Ted Casablanca of E! Online jumped on that bandwagon. His subsequent hinting about candidates-Candice Bergen, Oprah Winfrey, Roseanne-sent AOL's Pink Tank folder into frenzied speculation. (One Tanker wrote about Roseanne, "Ugh. If she's coming out, I'm going in.")
What diff does it make which way an entertainer swings? Are O’Donnell et al, being run down in some sort of cyber-witchhunt? As O’Donnell’s personal publicist, Lois Smith, asked me by phone "Don’t these people have anything better to do with their lives?" Oprah Winfrey, responding to a flood of press calls and Net rumors, actually had to released a statement last month asserting she is not gay. (Such silliness peaked a few years back when it focused on Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie. The Children's Television Workshop even issued a statement of clarification: "Ernie and Bert are puppets. Even though they are identified as males and clearly possess human traits, [they] do not have a sexual orientation.")
Perhaps it is a bit more than tongue-wagging. For years gay celebrities enjoyed something New York magazine columnist Ariel Kaminer called "the glass closet"-they could lead openly gay or lesbian lives and they wouldn't be reported on in the same lurid way that the love lives of heteros were, because publications feared "jeopardizing relations with a studio or public-relations firm," Kaminer writes.
DeGeneres upped the ante on all that. While the scandal of homosexuality once might have ruined a career, these days the consequences are not so clear-cut. In DeGeneres' case, it could be argued that the benefits (major PR bounce, sky-high ratings) outweigh the costs.
And the benefits are more than personal. "I feel that every gay person, myself included, should be 'out,'" says DeVaney, who is in the public light herself as a radio announcer. "My belief is that the only way we can make this a more tolerant world is by being 'out' and exerting a positive influence on those our lives touch. . . .
"I am perhaps naive for believing that the simple truth is enough to conquer the overwhelming hatred, fear, and prejudice in this country," she continues. "But I know it's where we need to start."
Of course, if Rosie isn't gay, then that would be another story entirely. . . .