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Stars' Split Pushes Gay Breakups Into the Limelight

September 04, 2000|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hollywood insiders seemed to shrug when the romance between Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres fell apart last month. TV and film execs apparently didn't give a fig about the breakup of Tinseltown's most out-there same-sex couple--the first and only "star" pair to proclaim their devotion so publicly.

"I haven't talked to a single person who has mentioned their split," said entertainment lawyer David Colden, echoing the sentiments of a number of studio heads, producers and agents. "In Hollywood circles, they're not on the radar. Nobody cares."

But some folks obviously do care. Why else would the breakup--and subsequent claims of Heche's breakdown (she turned up disoriented and half-dressed in Central California)--be given more media time and space than the split, at about the same time, of married stars Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan?

Why else would the tabloids and news magazines give the dynamic duo so much upfront coverage? And why would Scott Seoman's pager be ringing off the hook? "It hasn't stopped," says the media director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, who was barraged by reporters seeking tidbits of new information.

DeGeneres, who has a new comedy series in development with CBS, is not just a comedian whose TV show was canceled and who recently ended a lesbian love affair. She's the woman who had a hit TV show, and who dared in the midst of its run to out herself, and then to out the lead character she played on "Ellen." Then she fell in love in real life with film star Heche, who is now working in Canada on New Line Cinema's "John Q," co-starring Denzel Washington.

What they likely didn't think about at the time was that the most famous publicly lesbian couple in America could some day become the most famous to uncouple. And that their split might shine a spotlight not just on them, but on all gay and lesbian pairs in a society that has trouble understanding same-sex love relationships.

And certainly, it is a society that doesn't quite grasp the emotional toll that occurs when such relationships are severed. That is why many gays and lesbians continue to push for the right to have same-sex marriages, with all the legal rights that heterosexual married couples have--and why much of society continues to push right back. But marriage, after all, sometimes ends in divorce or dissolution.

"Everyone is watching them to see what will happen, how people react, and how it reflects on the lesbian community," says Los Angeles novelist Nina Revoyr, whose 1997 book, "The Necessary Hunger," dealt with lesbian characters. "This is not a breakup like Quaid and Ryan, who are just one straight couple among millions. With this pair, I think unfairly, people see what is happening to them as a statement about gay relationships in general. There is a palpable sense of anxiety about it," among the gay community.

Revoyr says part of the worry is that Heche, who dated Steve Martin and other men before meeting DeGeneres at a Vanity Fair Oscar party more than three years ago, might just revert to dating men. "That would give [the bigots] an opportunity to say, 'See? There are no lesbians. All any girl needs is the right fellow.' " People like this don't believe two women can really love each other, she says.

"And if they don't accept the legitimacy of your love relationship to begin with, then they certainly don't understand your heartbreak when it ends," sums up Revoyr.

Pepper Schwartz, sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, says all romantic breakups are traumatic because two people must unravel intertwined lives--shared friendships, families, living quarters, possessions. (DeGeneres and Heche have just put their Ojai home up for sale at $2.75 million.) "It's rare that both people come to the same conclusion at the same time in any breakup, so one party is losing something they want very much. It's a huge heartache, an actual physical pain. And it is all the worse if it has a public element, an element of humiliation due to public buzz."

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But whereas society understands that straight couples splitting up endure all sorts of agonies, there is often not the same compassion for lesbians and gays.

Denise Eger, rabbi at West Hollywood's congregation Kol Ami, which serves the gay community, says: "When a man and woman commit to each other, they get married. Tragically, for gay people, marriage is not yet possible. So within the gay community, we do not even have the right language to talk about relationships.

"We say couples are 'dating' or 'going together.' But Heche and DeGeneres were not dating. They were married. They bought a home together. They built a family with each other. They were together for 3 1/2 years, which is longer than many Hollywood marriages. When they separated, we said they 'broke up.' They did not. They divorced."

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