Staying Out

On the surface, the official uncloseting of Rosie O'Donnell received a great deal of attention from the media, including a two-hour edition of the Diane Sawyer-hosted Primetime and a stream of blowhard editorials in the nation's newspapers, weeks before the scheduled April 16 release of her orientation-confirming book, Find Me.

But gay comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer has a different point of view on l'affaire Rosie: "Five years ago, when Ellen DeGeneres came out, talking heads on Larry King Live and everywhere else were asking questions like, 'Will the entire infrastructure of society crash?' So the fabulous thing about how far we've come is that, for most people, this is almost a non-story. I read a letter in the New York Times that said, 'Ellen should have done it this way: nice and easy, no big deal.' But Ellen couldn't have done it differently; 1997 and 2002 are light-years apart -- and those five years have been huge."

DeGeneres's revelation had some notable effects on Westenhoefer, too -- but not all of them were positive. Westenhoefer has been up front about her sexuality since practically the first moment she set foot on a stage, declaring her preference on national TV in 1991 on an episode of Sally Jessy Raphael's show, about "lesbians who don't look like lesbians." In the wake of the Ellen hoopla, however, this fact often got lost.

Suzanne Westenhoefer
Suzanne Westenhoefer

"For the gay community as a whole, what Ellen did was huge and wonderful and perfect," she allows. "But it made me seem like I was jumping on a bandwagon that she got started. And I thought, 'Hello? I don't think so.' It definitely wasn't a boon for me."

Indeed, Westenhoefer admits that in long-ago interviews and some of her standup performances from the period, she made sometimes bitter remarks about being cast as a lesbian-come-lately -- "but I tried to let that go. I don't want to be in that space, because it's incredibly yucky." She pauses before adding, "I just said 'yucky.' Oh my God!"

Westenhoefer's combination of silliness and incisiveness is a big reason why a comedy special she assembled for HBO was nominated for a 1995 Cable ACE award. In addition, two of her CDs, Nothing in My Closet but My Clothes and I'm Not Cindy Brady, earned best-comedy-disc nods at the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards ceremonies in 1998 and 2000, respectively.

Topics she's apt to touch upon during her upcoming Denver appearance range from the benign -- she has a pet cocker spaniel that won't stop barking at her chimney -- to potentially controversial, including her opinions about our commander-in-chief. "Just because somebody crashed planes into the World Trade Center didn't make George Bush a hero," she notes. "After September 11, no one wanted to say that -- but in late October, I was doing a show and I just flipped out. I said, 'I don't know if it's just me, but even after everything that's happened, I still think he's an idiot.' There was this deep breath after I said that, but then everybody started yelling and clapping. And I was like, 'Yes!'"

As this anecdote demonstrates, Westenhoefer's sense of humor certainly isn't limited to gay subject matter. "I don't know any gay comic who could talk about nothing but that," she says. "My being gay is the same thing as Chris Rock being black. It colors everything we say, but that doesn't mean it's not mainstream. When I'm talking about my relationship, it's with a girl -- and trust me, there are fun differences. But mostly it sounds just like your relationship.

"Anyone can come to the show," she emphasizes with a laugh. "And it's not in a special language. If I say something you don't understand, it's okay. We'll take questions afterward." -- Michael Roberts

 
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