Bill O'Reilly is a brash, aggressive man who, at 6 foot 4, towers over everyone around him and exudes the no-nonsense working-class Irish Catholic background he proudly claims as a native of Levittown, N.Y. The nuns at his school had O'Reilly pegged as a handful at an early age. So it's hardly surprising when the 52-year-old host of Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor tells The Advocate , "I've never, ever, in my life been hit on by another guy. Ever. I don't give out that aura."
Any sensible person would wait for him to make the first move. But the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association took the initiative and asked O'Reilly out for their annual convention, and he said yes. He'll appear by satellite at the group's mid-September gathering in Philadelphia. Sure, he's debating whether there's a liberal bias in the media. But still, Bill O'Reilly? At a gay convention? After all, he continues to insist, "I've never understood why anyone, why any American, would want to tell the world what their sexual preference is. It's no one's business but yours."
During an extensive interview at his rather messy Fox News office in New York -- "It's always like this," he explains -- O'Reilly talks about almost every gay issue under the sun, from the gay pride parade ("It's offensive, it's foolish, it's counterproductive, and it backlashes against you") to gay adoption (he supports it and did a terrific interview with Rosie O'Donnell, but adds, "I'm not looking out for the gays here; I've got to tell you the truth. I'm looking out for the kids").
O'Reilly's show reaches some 20 million viewers a week, and his books are megasellers. He is the de facto face of hard-line conservatism, the way Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell once were. But O'Reilly is more of an iconoclast than you might imagine. He opposes the death penalty, admires Susan Sarandon, doesn't think much of Jesse Helms, and supports the decriminalization (but not legalization) of marijuana. He also states flatly that gays and lesbians deserve the same rights in the workplace as everyone else and shouldn't be fired because of who they are. He thinks gay-inclusive antidiscrimination laws should be enacted in every state and opposes the repeal effort against such an ordinance that's on the ballot September 10 in Florida's Miami-Dade County.
And he wouldn't mind in the least if someone thought he was gay.
"If people want to think I'm gay, fine," he says. "In fact, I wish I were gay. I'd get a lot more free meals, OK? Somebody take me out to the movies once in a while. I'm sure in my career -- because I didn't get married until very late in life -- that people said I was gay. I'm sure they did. I never heard it. But I'm sure it was said once in a while. I wasn't going to say, 'No, I'm not gay.' I don't care what they say about me. I couldn't care less. Because that was empowering those people. I learned that very early in life."
Later, while walking down the hall to his studio, O'Reilly greets another employee by name and then suddenly asks her, "Am I gay?"
"Are you gay?" she responds, looking both aghast and bewildered. "Who's saying that? That is ridiculous. Every single famous person gets that eventually."
O'Reilly quickly says, "But in my case, I am!"-jokingly-before turning away and striding toward the elevators.
"The problem with homosexuals is, there's a feeling among some leaders that they have to force people to accept them," O'Reilly says. "My thinking is, Why waste your time? There are millions of Americans who are never going to accept you, primarily on religious grounds. There are millions of Americans who fear you, primarily on psychological grounds-their neurosis. Why play into that? That's just going to bog you down. You're never going to cut through it. You're not going to convince the Holy Rollers that you're not an abomination, because they're going to quote the Old Testament."
That reference to Holy Rollers-a possibly pejorative term that certainly won't endear him to the religious right-is one reason O'Reilly can be such a fascinating figure to some gay activists. Surely his stance on gay adoption and comments like that don't play well with the typical conservative Fox News viewer.
"The only heat I take on the gay stuff is from very, very religious-driven people," he insists. "I don't take any heat from Republicans or Democrats. This is where you guys have it wrong: 90% percent of Americans don't care what you do; 10% are fanatics. They think you're going to hell, and they want you to go to hell. All right? Ignore them."
And what does he mean by religious fanatics? "I mean, people who think you are going to hell and are going to quote from Revelation that you're going there. I think that's a little ridiculous, don't you? Those are the people. The guys waving the [Bible] saying, 'God hates you.' How do they know? Let God sort it out. I have no idea whether God hates you or not."
So "religious fanatics" would include Falwell, Robertson, and the like? "Look, I'm not naming names because I don't know where they are-maybe they're evolving. I don't know. But anybody I see saying, 'This group is going to hell'? I mean, come on."
Still, O'Reilly is hardly a friend to gay activists. "I don't think I'm disrespectful to any gays on the air," O'Reilly says. "I treat everybody pretty much the same. We do a confrontational program and we get passionate about our arguments and it gets the juices flowing."
O'Reilly does play tough with all his guests. But it could be argued that he spends more time and energy criticizing gay activists than he does disagreeing with the people who condemn gays in a manner he considers un-American, illogical, and un-Christian. In part, it's because they have areas of agreement.
For example, at first he flatly opposes gay marriage. "Now you're in a different area," he says, differentiating marriage rights from, say, employment rights. He opposes same-sex marriage on legal grounds, social grounds, any ground he can get a solid foot on. But present him with a specific injustice, such as a gay person not being able to visit his or her partner in the hospital because they're not "related," and he'll quickly agree that "if you can't get into the hospital, that's a bad thing. And it shouldn't happen."
And while he's never tired of an argument, he can grow restless after he's made his point and dull practicalities like visitation rights replace the broad brush strokes of debate.
"Look, I couldn't care less, to tell you the truth," he says eventually of same-sex marriage. "You want to get married? Knock yourself out. Go to Vegas; have a good time."
Really? He wouldn't oppose gay marriage if it were legal? "If you can get that changed, I'm not going to jump up and down and say I think it's wrong, because I don't," O'Reilly says. "I think it's [a] foolish [issue] because I don't think you guys should be telling anybody what you do anyway." And so we return to square one: Why would anyone come out in the first place?
"I'm sure you could find some inconsistencies in what I say," he admits. "But the basic tenet is, I want you to have a good life. It's easier to have a good life if nobody knows what your sexual proclivities are-hetero or homosexual or whatever-so keep it quiet unless you absolutely have to define it. Andâ€‚if you have to define it, make sure you have a good lawyer standing there giving you good advice.
"Look," he continues, "society does not have the right to judge what you do behind closed doors. They simply don't. It's wrong, but they will do it. They will do it. If you want that judgment raining down on your head, then go out dressed like Dolly Parton. If you want to live the life where you have the most options you can have-which is really the benefit of America, options-shut up. Shut up. Have a good time. Carve a good life out for yourself. Find a good companion. But nobody has the right to know what you do in your private life."