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No Homo: Gay TV Hosts as Eunuchs

2010 April 16
by Genya Shimkin

360 Degrees of Being Censored, For The Sake Of His Career

After graduating from Bard College in 2008 with a degree in Human Rights and Russian Studies, Genya moved to Baltimore, Maryland.  She currently works for Baltimore HealthCare Access, serving the city’s uninsured and Medicaid enrollees.  In addition to her work in public health, Genya serves on the Board of Directors of Stonewall Democrats of Central Maryland.

People have long speculated about Anderson Cooper’s sexual orientation.  But even after Out Magazine put him at number two- behind David Geffen- on their list of the top 50 most powerful gay men and women in America, Cooper kept mum.  And with good reason.  If Anderson Cooper came out tomorrow, he’d be out of a job within a few months.   At the end of the day, straight American men don’t want to get their news from a queer guy.  Cooper’s show on CNN is a staple in the homes of heterosexuals across the country, and his all-American look and Vanderbilt lineage give him broad appeal.  He strives for objectivity, and generally achieves it.  He is a trusted and comforting voice.  Coming out would not compromise this objectivity, but for entirely too many Americans, it wouldn’t matter.  If Anderson Cooper were a fag, he wouldn’t be anything else.

Only in the past few years have we begun to see openly gay TV hosts on major channels hosting popular programs.  (I’m not counting Rosie O’Donnell, who came out after her talk show ended.)  Notably, none of them are men.  Ellen Degeneres, Rachel Maddow, and Suze Orman host three very different shows, but none attract a solely gay audience.  On the contrary, Ellen has built a reputation as an every-woman.  Her show enjoys huge popularity, and her addition to the judging panel on American Idol further positions her as successor to Oprah Winfrey’s throne.  But Ellen’s show airs during daytime; fewer men are home to watch her.  Shots that pan across her audience show gay men in cardigans and their soccer-mom-looking fruit flies.  You never see big leather dykes in the crowd; rumor has it they are turned away by producers, even though gay women were Ellen’s biggest supporters after her coming out and subsequent blacklisting- and they make up most of the audience at her sporadic stand-up specials.  On American idol, she is more likely to call a male contestant “cute” than a female one.  American Idol has a strong red-state following, and Ellen’s cutesy jokes and gentle criticism belie no sexuality at all.  She is, quite intentionally it seems, the straight man.  Meanwhile Kara DioGuardi and Simon Cowell parade their sexual tension around, and Simon frequently makes pointed (and almost homophobic?) jabs at host Ryan Seacrest.

Ellen seems acutely aware of the dangers of being pigeon-holed as a lesbian on TV; after all, it cost her years of gigs after she came out.  The gayest thing about her talk show (besides her wardrobe) is the fact that her wife (yes, wife– that’s allowed in some states!) Portia de Rossi sits in the audience of every episode.  Though Ellen could use her show as more of a platform for LGBT issues, her decision not to has allowed her to build the huge audience she now enjoys.  Of course, she had to sell out a bit to do it.  In December 2007, she had Jenna Bush on the show, and asked if they could call the President together; Jenna dials her mother’s direct line and eventually George W. Bush is on the phone with Ellen’s audience.  While her audience giggled and cheered, her gay fans seethed.  (Really, Ellen?  Even Dick Cheney has more respect for your “lifestyle” than Dubya!)  On the one hand, she alienates her LGBT fans, but on the other, she builds her fanbase and further distances herself from a niche as a gay host.  A few months later, in May 2008, she cornered a painfully awkward John McCain on the issue of marriage equality.  (I prefer “marriage equality” to “same-sex marriage,” because ultimately it’s about equality and not the sex of the person I’m marrying.)  He fumbled over wishing Ellen the best in her relationship but maintained that she didn’t deserve equal rights and protections under the law.  It was a moment that almost made me forget the phone call to Dubya.  Almost.

While Ellen dances and jokes her way into the hearts of millions, Suze Orman harshly criticizes (dare I say berates?) her audience.  She shoots down their dreams of new kitchens, laser hair removal, and exotic vacations.  Her show airs three times daily- early morning, midday and evening, but her audience doesn’t tune in to hear her opinions on political or social issues (nor do they tune in to watch her shoot the shit with celebrities).  They tune in- and call in to her segment “Can I Afford It?”- to figure out what to do now that the breadwinner in the household is out of a job, how to default responsibly on a loan, or how to invest/spend an unexpected bonus.  And Americans continue to demonstrate how much they trust her advice.  Just look at her book sales!  Even the FDIC turned to her for their post-economic collapse PSAs.  Perhaps the reason her homosexuality seems so irrelevant is because she rarely mentions it, and when she does, she usually comments on how much money she and her partner could save if they could legally marry and jointly file taxes.  Though her partner is a producer on her show, we can hardly compare that to Portia in the audience of Ellen’s show.  To Suze Orman, her sexual orientation seems almost incidental.  On Valentine’s Day 2009, she used the final minutes of her show to argue that same-sex marriage ought to be legal because “everyone deserves to make the most of their money.”  Nevermind the whole love thing.

Orman’s style is more feminine than Ellen’s, and her show isn’t inherently political.  She isn’t cutesy or likely to dance through her audience.  She claims to be a “55 year-old virgin,” (a comment I totally resent as it implies that two women cannot have sex) having never been with a man.  Besides her occasional references to “my KT”- her partner’s name is Kathy Travis- her show is largely devoid of any sexuality.  As it should be.  The majority of her viewers, her callers, and her channel’s audience are heterosexual.  And most of her advice transcends sexual orientation.  Whether you’re gay or straight, it’s important to have an I.R.A and a liquid eight-month emergency fund.  A show focused on gay finance issues (and there are a distinct set of financial issues that come with being gay, especially if you’re partnered) wouldn’t even survive on LOGO.  So as far as gay hosts go, Orman navigates the territory rather tactfully.  But again, she’s a woman.

Of the three big gay TV hosts right now, Rachel Maddow is by far the gayest.  I’m measuring her gayness based on out-ness, use of her show as a soapbox, championing gay causes, wardrobe (mostly off-air), and personal history.  After her senior at Stanford, Maddow became the first openly gay American to win a Rhodes Scholarship.  At the same time, she was active in ACT-UP; AIDS activism became a common thread throughout her academic work and social activism.  She frequently highlights LGBT issues on her show, from the fight for marriage equality to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  She’s hardly the only person covering these issues, but she is the host with the personal experience to back up her punditry; she’s the one who feels every defeat more deeply, who shares each victory with a partner.  Maddow is a self-identified “dyke” and “butch.”  She is unabashedly gay.  She hates make-up, but suffers through it for the sake of her producers, who also insist on big poofy cowlicks and hair products.  She wears jeans and sneakers behind her news desk.  She rocks big chunky hipster glasses (though rumor has it her producers hate them, as she lives in them off-screen, along with baggy oxfords and jeans which make her almost unrecognizable to her TV audience).  Until Rachel Maddow emerged as a star on MSNBC, I wasn’t sure if dorky gay kids like me would ever really have a smart, powerful, and ballsy woman to look up to, especially one that shared my affinity for 14 year-old boy chic.

During the 2008 election cycle, Maddow proved herself to be a worthy, less catty counterpoint to Keith Olbermann.  Her wonkishness, sharp wit, and highlighting of quirky and under-the-radar stories helped her build an audience on MSNBC.  Her show airs nightly at 9:00pm.  Between the timeslot, the channel, and the fact that she’s a woman, Maddow’s sexual orientation doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.  I suppose this is one way in which women have it easier.  The homophobia of American men has been well documented over the years, as has their fetishizing of- and obsession with- lesbians.  Of course, in the mind of a man who would fetishize lesbians, they all look like Portia de Rossi, not like me or Rachel Maddow, and definitely not like Ellen or Suze Orman, who are both over 50 and therefore unattractive and undesirable.  Though Maddow frequently references her sexual orientation and highlights LGBT issues on her show, I’ve never heard her specifically mention her partner, Susan Mikula, with whom she shares a home in Western Massachusetts- a state, by the way, where the two could marry if they so desired.  Whether she intends to or not, she makes it easy for people to separate her sexuality from the fact that she has lesbian sex.  Love the sinner, hate the sin, right?  Somehow, we’ve become really good at separating sexuality from sex itself, at least when it comes to women.

For some reason, lesbian sex seems benign, mysterious, safe, or “not really sex” to the average American.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “what do two girls do in bed?”  (The answer, for the record, is “whatever we want.”)  There are men who believe that if their female partner cheats with another woman it’s not really cheating.  Some of them think the idea is sexy; it’s a fantasy of theirs.  Apparently real lesbians just drive around in Subarus, walk their black labs, and hold hands all day.  Not like their male, “sodomite” counterparts.  I’ve never read the Bible, but apparently there’s a line about a man “lying with another man as he would a woman.”  Regardless of how I interpret this, it seems to be a crux of the religious community’s opposition to homosexuality, because they made the issue about anal sex.  They made it about men and penetration and supposed emasculation and anal sex.  (Note: plenty of lesbians- and straight people- engage in anal sex.)  This behavior, which is but one small piece of the very complicated puzzle that is the gay community, became the issue.  It’s not about love, or equal rights, or government interference in the bedroom.  It’s about buttsex.  And of course it became about AIDS, because all gay people with AIDS deserved it for participating in such a disgusting, barbaric act.  The early years of the AIDS epidemic absolutely changed the way the world looked at gay men, and they have yet to recover from it.

So while we are happy to separate lesbians from fisting or strap-ons or even anal sex, our culture is absolutely incapable of separating gay men from anal sex.  When Ricky Martin came out of the closet, no one should have cared, because being gay isn’t a big deal.  But now that he’s Ricky Martin with the dreaded gay asterisk, he’ll never be anything else.  Every time his name appears in print, the article will mention his coming out. People who loved his lame Latin pop when he was “straight” will turn on him because now we know he does it with other dudes.  In the butt.  So too would be the case with Anderson Cooper.  If people had to think about Anderson Cooper sucking a dick, they’d stop watching his show, no matter how many bloodied little boys he carried out of the rubble in Port-au-Prince.

4 Responses
  1. April 16, 2010

    The tact of your final paragraph is all our many-year friendship has conditioned me to expect from you.


  2. Caeli permalink
    April 16, 2010

    Yeah girl, you do rock that 14-year-old boy chic like a master.

  3. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    April 16, 2010

    Genya, your points are so spot-on, and thanks for pointing something out that usually gets swept under the rug. As soon as buttsex comes into the equation, people go wild (in the bad way), but two girls getting it on is hot. And its only ok to be gay so long as you don’t look “gay”, talk about gay issues, or mention anything homosexuality–especially if it is from personal experience. What proves this is that I had no idea Suze Orman is gay. I’ve known about her for years, but had no clue. And its true it shouldn’t make a difference who she has sex with or what her orientation is, but most people (especially those over 40) in this country still view homosexuality as deviant. And while for some reason its easy to separate lesbians from sexual acts, if a man is gay, all people seem to be able to see him as is gay, and that his big gay penis is doing gay things, etc. I think part of it is our cultural obsession with dicks (and penetration) and part of it is because of our schizophrenic approach to sex and sexuality in the first place.

  4. Kate F permalink
    April 23, 2010

    I feel like one of the reasons that gay men and lesbians are treated so different is because with women, I feel like homophobes or whatever we should call all the anti-gay housewives who watch Ellen’s show and pretend she’s actually straight are more likely to think they are “confused” or “experimenting”. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear “well if she just had the right man…”

    With men you don’t quite get that same sentiment. Words like “perversion” might come up often.

    I also think you’re right on point about the sex thing. People just can’t seem to remove the concept of “intercourse” from the word “sex”. I think that’s what leads people into such harsh reactions from gay men, but whatever women are doing, is again “confusion” or “experimenting” because we all know, that without a huge phallic object, it certainly can’t be sex.

    <3 Great job, Genya.

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