A fictional character coming out of the closet on television may send shock waves through much of America. But in today’s Hollywood, coming out as a real-life lesbian won’t even raise an eyebrow at the office.
“It’s a great time to be a gay woman,” says Dannielle Thomas, president of InterAct Management. “Five years ago, we would whisper about being lesbian. Now, in the boardrooms of Hollywood, we’re talking about it openly, even making jokes.”
Now that the closet door has been kicked wide open, lesbians are openly feasting at Hollywood’s power-lunch tables. They even have a name for themselves: the Girl World.
Their mentors are called the Girl Titans, the pioneer lesbians in top jobs at studios, networks, agencies, publicists’ offices and production companies who declare their sexual orientation with the boldness of, well, a straight woman.
With each new public declaration, the network of upwardly mobile, outwardly lesbian women in Hollywood grows in force.
“It’s the power of being honest,” says Nancy Levin, a recording-industry executive. “To be the senior vice president of Red Ant Entertainment (a $700 million company) and to have no one care that I’m a lesbian, that couldn’t have happened a while back.”
Indeed, it was only about five years ago that Lesbians in Film and Television (LIFT) held its first party - and only a handful of women attended. Now LIFT has close to a thousand members. At the Gay and Lesbian Center’s Women’s Night honoring k.d. lang last month, 900 women bought tickets. “I didn’t know one lesbian when I came out in 1990,” says Nina Jacobson, a top production executive at DreamWorks SKG. “Now it’s trendy to be a lesbian.”
Then again, it wasn’t that long ago - probably five years - that any woman was a rarity in the executive suite. Before gay women could emerge, women in general had to come into their own. And the Girl World is still tiny compared with the male homosexual galaxy in show business. The wealth and power of its leaders are dwarfed by those of David Geffen and the so-called velvet mafia.
In the Girl World, the most powerful examples were set by musicians Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang and “Married With Children” star Amanda Bearse, lesbian entertainers who publicly declared their homosexuality. Bearse, who plays the Bundys’ man-hungry neighbor Marcy on “Married With Children,” was the first prime-time actress to come out - in 1993.
“It is very liberating. Personally speaking, that is,” she says. “But there are still a lot of people, unfortunately, who can’t join us. There is always a vulnerability when you are in front of the camera.”
But Hollywood is now teeming with role models: independent producers like Christine Vachon, agents such as Jane Berliner at CAA, production executives such as TriStar’s Lauren Lloyd and Fox 2000’s Carla Hacken, and activist Chastity Bono, the daughter of Rep. Sonny Bono and Cher, who is a director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
“Today the only thing that stands in the way of being honest in Hollywood is your own fear and self-loathing,” says Jacobson.
It’s not just individuals who have raised the collective profile of gay women in show business. It takes a lesbian village. Whether it’s sipping Continentals at the Love Lounge or kicking the sawdust at the more rough-and-ready bar The Palm, or sharing coffee at Little Frieda’s - the three West Hollywood epicenters of the Girl World - there are now enough lesbians scattered throughout the entertainment industry to constitute a network of social and professional support.
“I certainly feel the network,” attests Lesli Klainberg, a 33-year-old documentary filmmaker. Klainberg says she finally got her big break on the current film comedy “B.A.P.S.” through a friendship forged on the board of GLAAD. “There is a sense of looking out for each other, not being hired because you’re gay but being noticed,” she says.
There are two thriving but separate lesbian worlds in Hollywood: the lipstick lesbians in the executive offices and the tool-belt crowd that competes in the macho world of gaffers, grips and carpenters on movie and television sets.
“I’m in a field that is the last stand of the macho man,” says Amazon, as this 27-year-old grip calls herself. “I’m a lesbian woman. I’m intimidating.” Yet she credits her blue-collar union with being instrumental in establishing her career.
The final frontier is being a lesbian in front of the camera. Will audiences let a gay woman play hetero-sexy? “I can’t guarantee a client that she will ever work again if she comes out,” says talent manager Thomas.
The gorgeous Guin Turner, on the other hand, broke into films in the lesbian drama “Go Fish.” With a leading role in HBO’s upcoming biopic about ‘50s pinup Betty Page, she feels honesty hasn’t hurt her mainstream chances. “Me, Amanda and Ellen are the test cases,” she says.
It helps, Turner says, if a gay actress is good-looking in a traditional way. “The world isn’t ready for lesbian androgyny.”
Still, any time she - or any out actress - gets turned down for a straight role, she has to wonder why. Ask Amanda Bearse how many roles she’s been offered since coming out. Zip.
That’s why the Girl World is delighted that “Ellen” star Ellen DeGeneres is coming out. Delighted, and slightly wary. “It’s great,” says Jacobson, “but I’m troubled about what a big deal this is. Where are we on civil rights for gay people if this is such a big deal? Given the world we live in, however, these kinds of choices make her a leader.”
Bearse the pioneer says: “You can’t diminish what Ellen is doing. Every time someone steps out in that way, especially with the power that is behind her, Disney and ABC, it’s important. It was a long time coming.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.