With news of T.R. Knight's split with boyfriend of two years Mark Cornelson and talk of trouble between Rosie O'Donnell and wife Kelli Carpenter hitting the blogs on the same day, it's clear -- gay relationships have stepped out of the closet and into the spotlight. But just how mainstreamed have Hollywood's gay power couples become? Out celebrity writers Michael Musto of The Village Voice and E! Online senior editor-columnist Marc Malkin discuss how far media has come with its coverage of gay celeb hookups and breakups.
Advocate.com: How has the media coverage of gay celebrity relationships -- and breakups -- changed over the past few years?
Michael Musto: It has definitely evolved; I thought that gay celebrities' relationships -- especially out gay celebrities' -- should be covered like any other celebrities'. I was always amazed that the media seemed reticent to go there. For example, today I read something about possible problems between Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli; it was on a USA Today blog, and you'll start seeing items like that pop up more often, but there's still a long way to go. A lot of times, like with Jodie Foster or Anderson Cooper, the media is afraid to talk about their relationships. It's probably that they're not out. The media, especially the gossip media, has no problem outing celebrities that they don't feel are important -- freaky people, like Michael Jackson, David Gest -- the media always was quick with the jokes about people like that. But when it's somebody in a position that they deem to be powerful and prestigious, like an Anderson Cooper or a Jodie Foster, the media won't bite the bait, even, for example, when Jodie made that remark thanking her beautiful girlfriend.
Marc Malkin: You know, it's interesting when I really think about that, I don't remember not covering them. For me, since I've been doing this -- for many years -- when they were out couples, I always covered them. In terms of celebrity journalism, they have to be big enough celebrities to cover. But I think really it probably took off with, like, Elton John and David Furnish, Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche, that really sort of put gay couples on the map.
Do you think that there's an individual or couple that really is responsible for the change in the way gay celebrity relationships are reported?
Musto: I'd say Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi were very big in giving interviews about their relationship, and that did help move things forward. Rosie and Kelli were very public as well. In the male sector, Neil Patrick Harris and his boyfriend, and Cheyenne Jackson and his boyfriend and John Barrowman and his husband; they all have helped contribute to the changing coverage. But I think the main impetus for the change is that the Internet is a much freer gossip environment than print publications and bloggers are much more fearless in writing the truth about celebrity developments and that in a way has forced the print media to take a second look at their own ethics and reevaluate why they don't always cover gay relationships.
Malkin: Off the top of my head, I'm thinking Melissa Etheridge when she was with Julie Cypher when they had their kids together. Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche when we started seeing photos of them with President Clinton; then of course there're people like Elton John and David Furnish. I don't know if they individually changed it; I think it changed along with pop culture at large. These were celebrity couples who were out of the closet who were talking about their relationships, who were being affectionate on a red carpet, not hiding behind a beard or having their partners sneak in through a back door at a premiere.
Do you think LGBT celebrity couples are held to a stronger microscope than heterosexual celebrity couples ?
Musto: I want them to be on an equal level of scrutiny so that if a lesbian celebrity has a new girlfriend, it should be reportable; they're public figures and I think they should be under the same microscope as straight celebrities. I'm old enough to remember the days of Rosie O'Donnell -- before she came out -- she was getting huge profiles, like in PeopleMagazine, and they didn't discuss anything about her private life except her children; they wouldn't even address rumors at that point. So now if out celebrities are under a bigger microscope, I think it's a welcome advance; it means people are not getting squeamish anymore about covering gay relationships.
Malkin: No, I don't think so. T.R. Knight, I covered it. I heard about the breakup and I started reporting it and figuring things out. I wasn't going to hold back. It's just like any other breakups that I hear about. I don't approach it any differently. It's just the usual round of phone calls, reporting and writing and putting it out there using the same words -- love on the rocks, split, breakup -- and a catchy headline.Do you think we expect more from our gay celebrities and couples?Musto:
We do. We kind of look up to them as heroes and icons and it's kind of upsetting when you read about a breakup like this Rosie thing -- I hope it's not true -- especially since we're fighting for gay marriage, we want our gay couples to never break up in a big public way but the good thing about the fact that they do is everyone will eventually realize the fact that we're human, we're equal, we have the same foibles and sometimes failed relationships as straight people.
Malkin: I think when celebrities do come out of the closet, the automatic assumption is that you've got to start doing the talk shows, speaking at rallies, you've got to become an advocate because visibility, as much as there are gay celebrities out there, the visibility is pretty low in terms of out celebrities, especially couples. In that way, maybe they expect more. I don't know if it's we expect more or if we hope to have more. When a celebrity does come out of the closet, it's still a pretty rare occurrence. So you want to grasp on to anything that supports us, sheds more light on gay people in Hollywood.
Do you think this increased, matter-of-fact coverage about gay celebrity couple breakups is a sign of progress when it comes to accepting same-sex couples?
Musto: Well, it just shows we're flawed like everyone else and that not all relationships work out. Just because we're fighting for the right to gay marriage doesn't mean there aren't going to be a lot of gay divorces down the turnpike; that's part of relationships. We have an equal right to mess up relationships just like everyone else.
Malkin: For sure. There's no doubt. The way gay couples are covered in mainstream media -- I think everyone is just covering them the way they would cover a straight couple. I don't think any mainstream media is not going to cover T.R. Knight's breakup; they're not going to stop covering a Rosie O'Donnell breakup. The Rosie O'Donnell thing is still a little iffy just because it's not clear, but I think mainstream media still covers that too.
When do you think this became more business-as-usual reporting?
Musto: Probably about three years ago, I'd say. But it's still not 100% there. The gossip columnists will still delve into straight couples' relationships and their breakups and feel squeamish about going near certain gay people. But I think eventually it will all be on an equal playing field, and that's what I'm looking forward to.
Malkin: When Clinton came into office, there was definitely a huge change there. Yeah, there were problems with "don't ask, don't tell," but in terms of gay celebrities' support of Clinton, I think it encouraged gay celebrities that they could come out. Melissa Etheridge came out during one of the inaugural balls, I believe. So you take that one step further, and she's going to be out about her relationship. I just think it's part of the cultural shift. And especially if we're going to talk about gay marriage. Then guess what, you can't talk about gay marriage without talking about gay couples, and everybody out there wants to know about celebrities, so you take it one step further: You're going to cover gay celebrities and gay couples because they're celebrities and now we can talk about them even though they're gay.