Cover Story

Can Gay Stars Shine?

Telling all is still seen as risky business

If there's one TV show on the air that reeks of blatant heterosexuality, locker-room testosterone, and defiantly retrograde T and A, it is, of course, Fox's proudly lowbrow Married ... With Children. So why do gay viewers have reason to adore it? (No, the answer isn't Peg Bundy — though she is a perennial choice for Halloween drag.) In gay circles, Married's claim to fame is that it employs Amanda Bearse, the first openly lesbian actress on network television.

Bearse, 37, who plays next-door-preppy Marcy D'Arcy with indefatigable good cheer, was outed by the tabloids four years ago. ''It was the call I knew someday would come,'' she recalls. ''It came on a date that had a lot of charge for me — the anniversary of my brother's death. So when my manager said the National Enquirer was going with a story, I said, 'So?' It just didn't matter compared to the larger picture. I said not to deny it.''

Part of Bearse's aplomb stemmed from her decision never to hide her orientation from her colleagues, beginning with her stint on ABC's daytime soap All My Children. ''I never minded people having information as long as it didn't fall into the hands of people who were prejudiced,'' says the actress, who now lives with her girlfriend, her girlfriend's 8-year-old daughter, and her own 2-year-old adopted daughter, Zoë. ''I've been in therapy. I had my own homophobia, like it was okay for other people to be gay but not myself. Fortunately, I'm over that.'' She's been working ever since.

If Bearse's experience were typical, then the subject of openly gay performers could be closed right now. But her story is still rare. While Hollywood's attitude toward homosexuality has relaxed in recent years — especially for off-camera talent — gay performers still face the fear that coming out will ruin their careers. Their closet doors might as well bear the label Open at your own risk.

In the similarly public arenas of sports and politics, some pioneers have successfully crashed the barriers. When she retired from women's singles professional tennis last year, Martina Navratilova was applauded and welcomed into the broadcast booth. On the House floor, gay congressman Barney Frank has not only been reelected in Massachusetts but also enjoys new visibility as the designated Democratic attack dog. And in the wake of Olympic diving gold medalist Greg Louganis' revealing his homosexuality and his AIDS diagnosis, his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, became a No. 1 best-seller. But within the entertainment industry, these are the exceptions that prove the old rule.

In the hierarchy of out performers, musicians may be at the top — from uncloseted gay singers like k.d. lang and Janis Ian to Melissa Etheridge, whose career took off after she acknowledged her homosexuality in '93. Touring last year as Green Day's opening act, the queer-punk band Pansy Division (with songs like ''Bill & Ted's Homosexual Adventure'') drew some catcalls, but, says frontman Jon Ginoli, 35, ''what we've gotten back is overwhelming gratitude.'' And Boy George, 34, soldiers on: His new album, Cheapness & Beauty, features one single, ''Same Thing in Reverse,'' which, he boasts, is the ''gayest pop single I've ever heard.''

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