When Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres were suddenly the most famous LGBTQ couple

Actress Anne Heche, who died last week from injuries sustained in a car crash on August 5, left behind a fascinating collection of film and television work, but she has perhaps made her greatest impact off screen. For three and a half years, she and Ellen DeGeneres were the most famous same-sex couple in the world, and their relationship forever changed public perceptions of queer life.

When DeGeneres met Heche in March 1997, the actor-comedian was preparing for a coming-out party together: for himself and for Ellen Morgan, the character she played on the ABC sitcom Ellen. In the summer of 1996, DeGeneres began lobbying ABC officials for her sitcom alter ego to come out, and in September, TV Guide reported that a coming-out episode was a possibility. It was not until March 1, 1997 that ABC officially approved the two-episode storyline, taped on the 7th and 14th. Although DeGeneres had never publicly admitted her own sexual orientation, it was an open secret. When ABC announced that same month that DeGeneres would be interviewed a week before Diane Sawyer’s coming-out episodes aired — the interview’s airdate was later pushed back to coincide with Sweeps Week — observers correctly guessed that the actor intended to reveal publicly that she is gay.

Enter Heche, an aspiring actor with a starring role in Volcano. On the evening of March 24, Heche spotted DeGeneres in a crowded room at Vanity Fair’s post-Oscars party, and as she told the story in her 2001 memoir, Call Me Crazy, she felt an immediate connection to the comedian attracted, even though she had no idea who she was. Heche wrote that little did she know DeGeneres would become the first person to play an openly gay lead on network television. The couple went home together that night and began a romance that was less whirlwind than maelstrom.

DeGeneres and Heche attended the VH1 Honors together without incident just days after DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time alongside the “Yep, I’m Gay” headline, but when Heche’s agents and publicity team discovered that she intended to To bring DeGeneres to the premiere of Volcano, they tried to dissuade her. Heche later wrote that after the premiere, she was banned from attending the party over fears that their new romance could hurt the box office. Meanwhile, Heche’s agents at Endeavor were negotiating her deal for Six Days, Seven Nights, in which she was cast as the romantic lead against Harrison Ford, a role she says would have been lost had it not been for Ford’s insistence on her sexuality no matter. After the “Volcano” premiere, Heche holed up at the DeGeneres home for a week to avoid paparazzi.

Ultimately, they decided to lean into the public storm. On Tuesday, April 22, three days before Volcano opened (and reportedly the day after closing her Six Days, Seven Nights deal), Heche fired her team and signed with the same agency and manager as her new friend. On Wednesday, the couple were in Chicago to tape the episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which was scheduled to air on the same day as Ellen’s new episodes. It was revealed on Thursday that the couple had swapped rings. On Friday, viewers could choose to see Heche in “Volcano” on premiere night or see DeGeneres’ primetime interview with Sawyer. On the Saturday night that “Volcano” topped the box office, DeGeneres and Heche were in Washington, DC, attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where they met President Clinton. They were the most famous same-sex couple in America and they had been together for barely a month.

During the initial media frenzy, the country split along familiar lines. The religious right followed Jerry Falwell’s lead and seized on the pair as another sign of moral decline. Meanwhile, LGBTQ organizations were celebrating the occasion, with GLAAD throwing parties across the country on the night the episode “Come Out With Ellen” aired. Heche didn’t quite fit the narrative of either camp. During her Oprah interview, DeGeneres pushed back on a homophobic guest, telling him, “That’s me. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s not a choice.” A few minutes after DeGeneres argued that she was born that way, Heche told Oprah, “I wasn’t gay before I met her. I never thought about it.” Years before the idea of ​​sexual fluidity entered the public consciousness, that discrepancy was enough for some people to see the relationship as a publicity stunt: as “Saturday Night Live.” recreated the Oprah interview, the joke was that Heche (played by Chris Kattan in Drag) was a gold digger.

Still, the couple immediately became a public symbol for the LGBTQ community, sending the message that a happy, prosperous, and even glamorous life outside of the closet could be possible. Judy Wieder, who was the editor-in-chief of LGBTQ magazine The Advocate at the time, explained over the phone that seeing the life DeGeneres and Heche created together allowed LGBTQ people to think, “Maybe me. Maybe one day, I will.” In their new roles as public icons, Heche and DeGeneres spoke at a human rights campaign dinner and the Millennium March for Equality, even pledging to marry in Vermont if same-sex marriage were legalized there.

Looking back, it seems inevitable that a relationship carrying as much political and cultural baggage as DeGeneres and Heche’s would crumble under the strain, but they stuck it out for three years even as their careers faltered. ABC canceled “Ellen”. in April 1998, after ratings dropped during the fourth season, amid bitter arguments over what DeGeneres viewed as a failure in promoting the show. That summer, “Six Days, Seven Nights” came out to modest box office success, an inconclusive result for a film that was seen as a test case for whether audiences would accept an actor in an open same-sex relationship playing a straight romantic lead . Offers dried up for both actors. Heche plunged into non-acting work, helming DeGeneres on a segment of HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk 2, but was beginning to feel her career was being swallowed up by Ellens. For her part, DeGeneres said in a post-breakup interview that she felt Heche was pushing her to make public displays of love. Things came to a head on August 19, 2000: DeGeneres and Heche announced in a statement to the New York Daily News that they had broken up, and on the same day Heche suffered a breakdown and was briefly hospitalized after suffering from a Strangers had been talking about flying saucers outside of Fresno.

The LGBTQ community didn’t take the breakup well, especially when Heche started dating a man. (She and Coleman Laffoon married about a year later.) “They needed a gay hero, and Anne left that gay hero,” says Wieder, the former Advocate editor. “They were just people going through a breakup and Anne was severely punished for that.”

Heche was slandered in the press and mocked late into the night. A year after the split, while on a promotional tour for her memoir, Heche gave the Advocate a controversial interview and blew up the interviewer when she asked him about her husband’s sexuality. “Today we have so much more understanding,” Wieder explained, “but you go back and there was this whole wave of negativity. … For my part, as a person who directed any part of it, I deeply regret it.”

Though DeGeneres regained her career following the breakup, Heche continued to struggle. Recently, with DeGeneres back in the news as her public persona imploded, Heche began speaking out about their relationship again, describing her feelings of isolation during their time together.

Despite the price she paid, however, Heche has always expressed pride in being part of the LGBTQ liberation movement, even when the movement got mad at her. “I’ve had the opportunity to speak on the steps of Washington and speak up for what I believe is our right to love without gender,” she said on a podcast last summer. Again, Heche’s place in history is the same. “She moved the needle. … She stuck with it and did it. She was a great asset to the things that needed to be done right then.”

Matthew Dessem is a writer based in Los Angeles.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-08-16/how-anne-heche-relationship-with-ellen-degeneres-changed-us When Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres were suddenly the most famous LGBTQ couple

Sarah Ridley

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