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25 coolest straight people.

It's not always easy being straight. No sense of style. No sense of camp. And then to be cool on top of it? Hard work. Yet some have actually accomplished both. So The Advocate felt it was time to honor 25 of these hard-working hip heteros based on recent important deeds they've done on our behalf and at their own expense--literally and emotionally.

We begin with the coolest of them all, Bette Midler, interviewed by her longtime friend Bruce Vilanch.

best bette

SHE CALLS HERSELF BATHHOUSE BETTY THESE DAYS, BUT WE'VE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF BETTE MIDLER AS SIMPLY DIVINE

BETTE MIDLER AND I GO BACK A WAYS. WE DIDN'T MEET AT THE CONTINENTAL BATHS, THAT FOUNTAIN OF FUN, FORNICATION, AND FEATHER-BOA'D GIRL SINGERS WHERE YOU COULD LITERALLY GET BLOWN AWAY BY ONE ENTERTAINER OR ANOTHER.

But we could have. Since our collision in a much tamer Chicago club almost (gasp!) 30 years ago, we have had a collaboration marked by tantrums, triumph, hits, losses--and the world's record for late-night room service consumption of Caesar salad. I write, she rewrites, we re-rewrite, she performs. In the early days, when I was a TV critic for the Chicago Tribune, I used to call the other TV critics in towns where she was playing and get news of the latest scandal to incorporate into the material in her act. Then I started going on the road with her and terrorizing the TV critics in person. I sat through many an interview, watching her work with the press. And now, so many glad hands later, I am interviewing her myself, fiddling with the little tape recorder, knocking over the iced tea, getting small bits of bread crumb on the steno pad. She's in the midst of promoting a new album, but we've got bigger fish to fry, although fried fish is strictly verboten on both our diets. The Advocate has named her the coolest straight person in the world.

How do you feel about reaching this pinnacle?

I was thrilled to hear it. I don't know what I've done to deserve this, but evidently I've done an exceptional job.

You are now officially cooler than Madonna.

You mean I beat her out? I can lord this over my daughter for weeks! I gave her an award once. Not my daughter. Madonna. The details are hazy. We were both very blond and both wore black Armani suits. I have no memory of anything else that transpired.

You were filling in for Elizabeth Taylor.

Oh, that's right. And I wasn't wearing nearly enough jewelry for the job.

It may not be entirely coincidental that you're getting named the coolest straight person in the world on the eve of the release of a new album titled Bathhouse Betty.

Well, get you, Ted Koppel. I suppose not.

Why have you gone back to the baths at this point in the game?

This is not back to the baths, exactly. But I wanted it to be informed by that energy. The energy I had in those days. The essence of who I am was created in that hothouse environment. If that isn't to pompous. And God knows we are nothing if not pompous from time to time.

So the title--

The title I got from a crazed fan. I was at my house in Laguna, and I was all alone, I was all alone, and it was early in the morning, and suddenly there was this pounding on the door. And I looked out the window and this drunken fan--I think he must have been at the end of a v-e-e-ery long night--was staggering around outside, and he was screaming, "Bathhouse Betty! Bathhouse Betty! Come out!" And I immediately called my broker and said, "Sell this house!" Then I called 911. But he went away. Much later, when I was choosing the songs for this record, I was thinking about the old days, and it occurred to me ... I really am Bathhouse Betty. I mean, you've no idea how many people I meet who say, "You know, I was there." Hordes of people! Of course, they all can't have been there ...

Probably not. "Excuse me, Princess Margaret, but I would have remembered you. That would have been one big royal blue towel." Because of those early days, a lot of gay people feel you are their personal possession who somehow fell overboard into the mainstream.

Well, my heart's always been Bathhouse Betty, I have to say. If it hadn't been for certain gay friends of mine, I wouldn't know nothing from nothing. If Ben Gillespie hadn't played Aretha Franklin for me, I'd still be singing in Fiddler on the Roof. [Bette and Ben met when they were both in the Broadway cast, circa 1969.] That's why I say this album has a gay sensibility. In fact, all of my records try to. Because gay people don't say there's one kind of music. Gay people accept all kinds of music. If you can dance to it, sing along with it, it can be rock or opera--or rock opera! Gay people not only keep opera going, they keep plays about opera going.

Have you ever had any backlash or attitude from gay people who think you've forgotten them?

Who, cool me? Actually, just at the beginning. Remember Arthur Bell? He wrote for The Village Voice, and he was very influential in that crowd in the '70s. He wrote that I was the first female drag queen. He said I was a woman imitating a gay man imitating a woman. I was highly insulted until I realized he was right [Laughs].

Arthur was devilishly clever, as Daffy Duck would say. He reviewed Bugsy Malone and said it was the first movie ever made for gay children. But seriously--other than Arthur--have you ever encountered any gay people who feel you've moved away from them?

I think gay people have been very proud of me, unless I'm missing something. They're proud I was there at the beginning of the gay rights movement. You know, when I talked about doing a gay liberation benefit, which is what it was called in those days--on national television, on the Johnny Carson show!--it gave them a real jolt. [Bette did do the first gay liberation rally, in New York's Washington Square Park, in 1971.] I didn't realize it at the time because I was in the middle of it.

You were also in the middle of women's lib.

That was Helen Reddy. You always got us confused.

Who wouldn't? When I met you, at the legendary watering hole in Chicago known as Mr. Kelly's--

The green goddess salad dressing is swimming before my eyes as we speak ...

You were wearing--

The black dress with no bra. I remember.

You told me it was a political statement. I told you that in your case it was a terrorist act.

And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Louie. You were mad about me, and I love to be worshiped. We got along great. Then we both went blond, and that was the beginning of the end.

That wasn't until much later. We had to come to Hollywood for that. You went blond for The Rose, and I went blond for spite.

Oh, by then we'd sorted it out. At the beginning there were some rough times. You bonded with Barry [Manilow, her music director at the time], and I was very jealous. Barry made friends with all My People, and it freaked me out because I knew he was going out on his own. But you stuck with me, and we kept on going.

And we would go from town to town, our merry band. Barry and Melissa Manchester, who was the first Harlette, and Will Lee, who plays bass for Letterman, and Luther Vandross--

Luther was later. He would sit offstage because he had terrible stage fright. He was afraid to fly too. He was afraid of his shadow. He wasn't afraid to eat, though. Mmm, boy, we had some good eating times on the road. He would sit offstage and sing the most brilliant vocal lines ...

While gnawing on a chicken. I was there, bidding for leftovers. A fool's errand.

Should we talk about some of the benefits we've done? To give this interview some redeeming social value? Other than the social value we're getting having lunch together? Benefits "R" Us!

Well, there was Washington Square, that first gay lib benefit.

The ones I remember are the Hollywood Bowl--that was to fight a measure on the ballot that would have banned openly gay people from teaching in the California school system. And Richard Pryor got stoned and told the audience to kiss his rich black ass. And then Tom Waits had to go out and sing, "Standin' on the corner, watchin' all the girls go by." And then I came out and said, "Who wants to kiss my rich white ass?"

And you were dressed as Miss Liberty, being lynched by the Harlettes, who were in Klan robes.

I forgot that part! God, we were thematic! I remember falling and skinning both knees and standing up there bleeding my way through the ballads. And then there was the Shanti Foundation benefit for Peter Allen [a memorial tribute by the HIV/AIDS service organization], where I was holding the sheet music, decided I knew the words, cavalierly tossed away the sheet music, and forgot everything. Very humbling. Do they still do that Commitment to Life benefit [AIDS Project Los Angeles's annual shindig]?

We just did the tenth one. You were honored at the fifth.

But that was years ago. I thought they'd dismantled it.

It's very hard to find people to honor.

Not really. There are lots of people who would be honored. But the emphasis is always on show business. Since I moved back to New York City, I've been to a million benefits honoring people in banking, real estate, insurance. There's money out there. And those benefits don't have any entertainment at all. The entertainment is the guy accepting the award. People don't mind. Maybe these charities have to widen their horizons.

Speaking of which, let's talk about Jackie. In your next picture--I love saying that, I get a little Louella Parsons frisson--you play Jackie Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls. It's ironic that the book is such a gay icon, because she's kinda tough on homos.

You think? I guess ... It's the way some of the characters are written--they have a rough edge--but those were the attitudes of the times. I think that she actually had a soft spot in her heart for gay men. And then there is all that undocumented evidence about her and Ethel Merman! I mean, I was doing my research on this woman, and my head was swiveling as I was reading this stuff. Does the movie touch on any of this? Ab-so-lutely not! She also smoked like a chimney and took major drugs, but that isn't dealt with, either. The writer, Paul Rudnick, is a gay man, but that is not the story he wanted to tell. She was larger than life but also loose, and she wasn't an uptight person at all. She thought everything was funny, plus she was so stylish. That is so much of her appeal--she was so unafraid. Big, big hair, bold prints, lots of makeup, immense eyelashes. Drag queens especially love her. But I think people will be surprised at the dimension of this character they view as a '60s icon.

How about your other projects? Avon Ladies up the Amazon, the rumored sequel to The First Wives Club?

I loved the script, but they're having a hard time getting the other girls to commit.

What about this TV series we kept hearing about?

Very curious. They came up with an idea, and they wanted it to go on the air this September. But they never showed me a script. However, the Harlette series [which Bette will coproduce but not star in] has gone to Lifetime--Television for Women, babe--and we have Jenifer Lewis and Taylor Dayne involved. And they're a force worth reckoning with.

Ah, good chance for a segue. Have you been following what's been going on in Hawaii? With the same-sex marriage case? You are Hawaii's most famous Jewess, you know.

I honestly haven't thought about it. But they expect to have a big influx of people coming there to get married, and that can't hurt, because the economy is in the toilet; the Japanese don't spend the way they used to. Every place is in a panic except Maui, which is the only island that has survived the crash. In the long run I don't know if the marriage law will make that much of a difference to the economy, but you know the Hawaiians have such an easygoing "live and let live" sensibility. It's so Americanized, but it's the best part of America. All the best things about America are there. It's so beautiful, and everything works. I'll wind up back there.

But first the road.

I'm thinking about it. I'd like to get out there again, sing some of these new songs. You interested?

I would do it only for my charity.

What's that?

The Vilanch Foundation for Needy Lifeguards.

Accommodating lifeguards.

As you wish.

david duchovny

ACTOR

When the National Freedom to Marry Coalition distributed its Marriage Resolution calling for the legalization of same-sex nuptials, David Duchovny was happy to add his name to the list. The star of The X-Files doesn't worry that some fans might think he's gay because he signed the resolution--or because he played a transvestite detective, Dennis/Denise, on Twin Peaks. (In that town every closet had a secret.) In an episode of Garry Shandling's The Larry Sanders Show, Duchovny played himself as having a crush on Sanders.

In an interview Duchovny responds that it's ironic that people will ask if he is gay or say he is courageous to do a gay role. They wouldn't seek explanations, he says, if he played, for example, a serial killer. "Everyone is perfectly willing to accept people playing murderers," he says. "But all of a sudden you step out there and you have a crush on a guy, and it's, `Oh, that's brave.'" carolyn wagner

ACTIVIST, PFLAG MOM

Carolyn Wagner began her crusade for gay rights four years ago, when her son Willi came out in the eighth grade. Within a day Willi was being harassed, and Wagner was shocked by the reaction of school officials in their town of Fayetteville, Ark. "Talk about blithering idiots," she says. "These were educated people saying `Your son made a bad choice' or `He's the problem.'" After years of even more harassment, including an attack in which Willi suffered a broken nose and damage to internal organs, the Wagners, represented by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, eventually leading the department to rule that Title IX guidelines on sexual harassment can be invoked to protect lesbian and gay students against some forms of abuse. An agreement reached in June between the department and the Wagners' school district requires the district to take steps to prevent "sexual harassment directed at gay and lesbian students" and also provides additional leverage in antigay harassment cases in schools around the country. When local antigay conservatives charge that gay organizations are trying to "influence" their community, Wagner says they're right: "We're going to influence them with education."

richard branson

ENTREPRENEUR

"Say Something" is all that Richard Branson asks. The ad campaign for the British entrepreneur's Virgin Cola soft drink company brims with controversy. The "Say Something" campaign, which debuted in the United States in July, quenched viewers' thirst for a little creativity, but some TV stations have refused to show the ads; among the spots is a real-life commitment ceremony between two gay men. Anyone who doubts Branson's personal fearlessness should check out his new Times Books memoir, Losing My Virginity--not to mention the wedding gown ensemble he wore when he launched his bridal retailing business. Also, he owns London's hottest gay disco, Heaven. And if that were not enough, Virgin Cola and Virgin Megastore cosponsored the drag festival Wigstock '98 in New York City.

A Virgin Cola spokesman says the "Say Something" campaign is the company's way of giving people from all walks of life a chance to have their say. "Other companies use supermodels who appeal to only a certain segment of society; we're putting real people on a soapbox and letting them have their say," says spokesman Jonathan Cutler. So far, several TV stations around the country, including KNBC in Los Angeles, have refused to air six of the seven Virgin Cola ads, including the gay union.

john lewis

CONGRESSMAN

While Georgia provides Congress with one of its better-known antigay members--Rep. Newt Gingrich--it's also home to one of its most pro-gay: Rep. John Lewis. Honored October 5 by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lewis has a long history of standing up for equal rights. A key member of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, he helped organize many demonstrations, including the 1963 march on Washington. At a 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Ala., Lewis's skull was cracked by a police nightstick.

The congressman has drawn clear parallels between African-Americans' struggle for equal rights and that of gay men and lesbians. For example, when Congress made an unsuccessful attempt to repeal protections for gay and lesbian federal employees last August, Lewis said, "Excluding someone from the workplace because of their sexual orientation is discrimination, plain and simple. It is unbelievable to me that 33 years after Selma and the Voting Rights Act, we must still fight against bigotry."

sister mary elizabeth

INTERNET AIDS ACTIVIST

In 1990, when Sister Mary Elizabeth, a Roman Catholic nun, started the electronic bulletin board that has become AEGIS (www.aegis.com), she was just trying to disseminate much-needed information about AIDS treatment. Little did she know that eight years later she would be running the world's largest database on AIDS and HIV. The San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based service--called "the best of its kind" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--has close to 700,000 documents on-line, thanks largely to the nun's efforts to get government sources like the National Library of Medicine to make their data banks available for free.

Sister Mary Elizabeth says the idea for the service began one day in a Wal-Mart parking lot in the rural Missouri town where she was based at the time. She spotted a young man with Kaposi's sarcoma lesions and introduced herself, only to find that he was living "in absolute fear." She said he couldn't even get basic facts about treatment options, so she began searching for ways to get information to people like him who are isolated and need to protect their privacy. "Going to an on-line service seemed like the ideal solution," she says, noting that it combined her technical skills with her spiritual calling to help people. Her order agreed; for five years the service was sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary until it was reorganized as a nonprofit organization in 1995.

dan foley

ATTORNEY

It took a straight man to say "I do" in order to kick-start one of the biggest civil rights struggles gay men and lesbians face today--gay marriage.

Honolulu attorney Dan Foley says he didn't have to think twice when asked to take on a case challenging Hawaii's ban on same-sex marriage. "My first reaction was that it would be arrogant to deny [gays] a right I have," he says.

Foley was no stranger to gay issues. His uncle opened one of the first gay bars in Marin County, Calif., in the 1950s, and in 1969 Foley wrote his senior thesis at San Francisco State University on the treatment of sexual minorities in America. Evan Wolfson, director of the Marriage Project for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and cocounsel on the Hawaii case, praised Foley's work. "He is an absolute champion of justice.... Having him in partnership with Lambda has made all the difference in the world."

A decision in the Hawaii case is pending before the state supreme court.

barbara van blake

EDUCATOR

Gays in the classroom--as teachers or students--still remains a source of endless controversy. That's why Barbara Van Blake is so important. As director of the Human Rights and Community Relations Department for the American Federation of Teachers, Van Blake has taken the lead in making sure that schools become a comfortable place for gays and lesbians. Because of Van Blake, the AFT signed on this year to the Back to School Campaign sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, an advocacy effort that includes a letter-writing campaign aimed at raising gay visibility in schools and an annual "report card" on schools' efforts to address the needs of gay students and staff. Moreover, the AFT has provided a link to GLSEN on its Web site. "For her to make that step really showed us that she was very much on our side," says Kate Frankfurt, GLSEN's director of advocacy.

Van Blake has been with the AFT since 1975, and under her leadership the human rights division of the teachers union now makes information available on request about issues of sexual orientation in schools and also addresses gay issues at its annual human rights conference. Van Blake said that AFT's work originally focused mainly on racial discrimination and equal pay for women teachers. "But as we go along," she says, "we look at who is being discriminated against, and we recognize the fact that gays and lesbians are too."

christopher reeve

ACTOR-DIRECTOR

One actor who knows what superherodom is about is Christopher Reeve. These days Reeve also understands what it means to dig deep for dignity and courage. These are qualities that the actor-director underscores in the film projects he has undertaken since his paralyzing accident in May 1995.

Reeve, who in the 1980s appeared on Broadway as a gay amputee in Fifth of July and on film as a gay playwright in Deathtrap, uses the gay experience to dramatize universal themes of family, relationships, and pain. In 1997 Reeve made his directing debut with the HBO film In the Gloaming. The story involves a gay man with AIDS (played by Robert Scan Leonard) who returns home to a strained relationship with his family.

Gays are depicted as just another part of normal, everyday life in Reeve's most recent project, Rear Window. The made-for-TV film is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller, with Reeve as the star and executive producer. In an update of the original, a gay couple inhabits one of the apartments that a wheelchair-bound character observes from his window. "They are visible and obvious," says an ABC executive. (Rear Window airs November 22 on ABC.)

emma thompson

ACTOR

Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson, who is indelibly linked to Shakespeare and Jane Austen, counts the canceled sitcom Ellen among her credits as well. The classically trained actress won an Emmy award this year for her role in an Ellen episode that aired last November. In the show Thompson, playing herself, kisses another woman; Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres) witnesses the act. Ellen then finagles her way into becoming Thompson's assistant and tries to persuade her to come out publicly.

In the past Thompson has said that her late gay uncle, whom she referred to as "a third parent," helped mold her sense of humor and left her with a lifelong affinity for gay people. As a result, dealing with gay subject matter has never been a stretch for her. She starred in the 1995 film Carrington, playing an artist in love with a gay man. She had played a similar role to comic effect with her longtime friend, out actor Stephen Fry, in Peter's Friends in 1993.

steven cozza BOY SCOUT

When Steven Cozza, 13, learned about the Boy Scouts of America's policy of excluding gays, "he got so ashamed of scouting that he almost quit," says his father, Scott.

Rather than quit, Cozza became a catalyst behind the Scouting for All project (www.scoutingforall.org), which urges BSA to change its exclusionary policies. The group already has collected 25,000 signatures in support of its mission, and Cozza occasionally makes trips into San Francisco's Castro district to collect more. "Everybody should be able to be in the Boy Scouts, because it is a great program," Cozza says.

Although BSA expelled one of Cozza's scout leaders--a 59-year scouting veteran--earlier this year for allegedly using his position to promote Scouting for All, the teenager remains undaunted. "They tell you to stand up for what you believe in, and that's what I'm doing."

mary griffith ACTIVIST

Triple bypass surgery earlier this year hasn't stopped Mary Griffith from crusading for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. She just works from her Walnut Creek, Calif., home. Griffith, a past president of PFLAG, has preached love for gay children for more than ten years. Her message grew out of a personal tragedy, the death of her son, Bobby. Because of her Christian views, Griffith believed that if her son prayed hard enough, he would expunge his gay tendencies. His prayers failed, and in 1983 he committed suicide. What followed was "the most dramatic conversion," says journalist Leroy Aarons, who wrote Prayers for Bobby, a book about Griffith's transformation into a gay rights activist. A TV movie based on the book is in development at NBC, with Susan Sarandon, David Permut, Daniel Sladek, and Chris Taaffe as producers.

lucy lawless ACTOR

With her support for same-sex marriage, Lucy Lawless is trying to get the law on the side of thousands of lesbian fans. Lawless acknowledged in a 1997 cover story for The Lesbian News that her lesbian following helped propel Xena: Warrior Princess from a Hercules: The Legendary Journeys spin-off into a hit TV show. Lawless once described Xena as a "badass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl who traverses the time lines." Some lesbians also see her as a hero and heartthrob who traverses the gender lines (check out the dozens of Web sites).

Colleagues say that Lawless's reputation as a gay-friendly actor is consistent with her compassionate attitude. She is "a very decent, very humane person," says one coworker from the Xena series. By putting her muscle behind the Marriage Resolution [see page 48], Lawless could push same-sex couples a little closer to legitimacy.

frank rich

COLUMNIST

New York Times columnist Frank Rich had one of the cooler comebacks to the Christian right's "cure for homosexuality" ad campaign last summer. He wrote that the best ex-gay poster child would be Heaven's Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, who managed to cure his homosexuality only through castration and suicide.

Rich, 49, says his stand on gay issues is a matter of principle, albeit a principle that has been personalized. When friends came out to him after college, "I had my eyes opened to the fact that there was a whole other dynamic to American social and political life." His eyes were opened even more, he says, during his 13 years as the Times' chief drama critic before moving to the paper's op-ed page in 1994.

Jonathan Cape hart, a vice president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, calls Rich's take on gay issues "incredible." When you have someone of the stature of Frank Rich speaking out on these issues," Capehart says, "it can't but help."

prince william

HEIR TO THE BRITISH THRONE

Neither the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund nor Buckingham Palace will confirm it, but the much-reported rumor is that Prince William originated the idea to auction Diana's gowns and donate the funds to AIDS and cancer charities. The prince was only 15 when Diana, his mother, died in a car crash in Paris in August 1997. In those 15 years, however, Diana bent the royal rules enough to show the future king glimpses of the real world. She took William to visit the sick and homeless--including AIDS patients. Officially, no one ever asked Diana if the prince actually did come up with the idea, so the official word is: No one will ever know. Besides, the prince is "only a schoolboy," says his spokesperson, and therefore is focusing on his studies, not the world's problems. But it has also been reported--unofficially--that the prince, like his mother, is a sensitive and compassionate soul. If the gown auction rumor is true, it could be good news for royal subjects when this schoolboy gets hold of the crown.

renee buck

ACTIVIST

It's hard enough to find gay activists to do grassroots organizing for gay and lesbian causes. So how did Renee Buck, a straight woman, become cochair of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas?

When Buck's teenage daughter came out of the closet in 1994 and was subsequently punched in the head by a football player, Buck struck a deal with her daughter's attacker: She wouldn't press charges if the boy testified in favor of including protections based on sexual orientation in the school's code of conduct. The boy testified, the school's code was changed, and Buck got involved with the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas.

While Buck, who lives in Austin, was never politically active before the attack--"It wasn't really my thing," she says--she now urges other straight parents, including those without gay children, to get involved. "In any rights movement it's important that someone who has nothing to do with that movement personally get involved," she says. "There's a lot of power there."

elizabeth taylor

ACTOR

Elizabeth Taylor was the center of attention as she arrived with Magic Johnson on one arm and k.d. lang on the other at the Macy's and American Express Passport '98, an AIDS fund-raiser, in September in Santa Monica, Calif. Though a bit unsteady after a year fraught with illness and injury, Taylor is still the epitome of fashion and compassion. Not only did Taylor, the event's founding chairwoman, draw big bucks from corporate sponsors, but she also championed AIDS awareness and pleaded for financial support for the "programs that we know work." After her friend Rock Hudson died, Taylor became the first major celebrity to join the AIDS fight, and she remains as dedicated as ever. "On so many levels she has been instrumental in the success of this event," says Passport '98 producer Larry Hashbarger. "She is totally committed to this fight. It really is her passion." The event, along with one held in San Francisco, raised nearly $2 million for ten nonprofit organizations dedicated to HIV and AIDS research, including Taylor's own AIDS foundation. richard gere

ACTOR, ACTIVIST

Though reserved offscreen, Richard Gere isn't shy when it comes to using his fame to promote a good cause. In April, Gere launched an AIDS awareness program in India, warning that the disease is spreading in that country. "I hope I will be able to find a way into the hearts of the Indian people [through the program]," Gere said. The project will raise funds for nongovernment organizations working to prevent the spread of AIDS and assist people who have the disease.

Rumors that Gere is gay have persisted for years, even though they are untrue. In fact, the actor sees trumpeting his heterosexuality as a kind of backhanded insult to gays; he believes that being called gay is not a slur that should be denounced as loudly as possible. Gere has also helped crack the celluloid closet in Hollywood. His participation in the made-for-cable movie And the Band Played On--in which he played a gay choreographer stricken by the disease--was critical to getting the production launched.

eve kosofsky sedgwick

PROFESSOR

Associates of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick caution that she might not appreciate being included in a list of straight people, since her work has focused on challenging conventional understandings of sex and gender.

Sedgwick (who was traveling in Asia and could not be reached for comment) is one of the main figures in queer theory, the academic field that examines literary texts for hidden gay themes and explores how those themes play out within various cultures. Currently a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate School and University Center of City University of New York, Sedgwick helped found the queer studies field with books such as Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire and Epistemology of the Closet.

"She did everything short of just inventing the field," says Jose Munoz, a professor of performance studies at New York University. "It's hard to think of anyone who's made more of a contribution."

oprah winfrey

TALK-SHOW HOST

It's true that Oprah Winfrey--a woman so influential that when she spoke negatively about hamburgers, the Texas beef industry sued her--has always addressed gay and lesbian issues on her hit talk show. Through the years she has helped to ease Middle America's fear of gays by asking thoughtful questions and giving airtime for moving and persuasive answers.

That's why Ellen DeGeneres knew that if Winfrey played her therapist on the coming-out episode of Ellen, tons of wary viewers would tune in and feel safer. In return, DeGeneres and her new love, Anne Heche, did The Oprah Winfrey Show in May 1997. When Heche said she'd never been gay until she saw DeGeneres, the audience lost its mind. Winfrey had to schedule an emergency follow-up show titled "Are You Born Gay?" to calm the reported 22 million people who had tuned in. After the show Winfrey told The Advocate's editor in chief that the hate mail had shocked and overwhelmed her.

Still, that didn't scare the tenacious talk-show host away from gay topics. On September 28, Winfrey interviewed Chastity Bono and her mother, Cher, about the traumas of coming out for gay children and parents. The aftermath? Several PFLAG centers received calls from parents who saw the show and wanted help in dealing with their gay children. Way cool, Oprah!

kate shindle

MISS AMERICA 1998

As Miss America 1998, Kate Shindle took HIV prevention to people who before may have never even spoken of the virus, let alone its prevention. Before delivering a speech in South Carolina, for example, Shindle says she was given a list of words she was forbidden to say, including condom distribution, needle exchange, alternative lifestyle, heterosexual, homosexual, gay, and straight. Undaunted, Shindle traveled 20,000 miles a month telling people how to prevent the spread of HIV. "There was some controversy generated by the fact that Miss America was talking about sex and condoms," she says, "but [pageant officials] told me I could say whatever I wanted."

Although her reign ended in September, Shindle has not dropped her platform. Currently a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Shindle will also work for two Washington, D.C.-based AIDS organizations, AIDS Action and the National AIDS Fund.

antonio sabato jr.

ACTOR-MODEL

Antonio Sabato Jr. set hearts aflutter--male and female--when he entered daytime TV as Jagger Cates on General Hospital, then joined Melrose Place for some drama with Heather Locklear. In interviews the Italian-born Sabato has said he considers it a compliment if a guy hits on him--not an attitude typical of most men with Hollywood-leading-man aspirations. As the new spokesman for Durex condoms, Sabato has taken on another taboo: safer sex.

Asked by Detour magazine if he'd ever had sex with a man, Sabato, 26, responded no but believes it's a personal choice. He added that if he had been born a woman, he would be a lesbian. "Anne Heche or Ellen DeGeneres," he said. "The love they have for each other is what's important." The one person Sabato would like to emulate is Batman because of "his honesty." It's a prospect his gay fans would savor. Anyone who's seen the actor as the Calvin Klein poster boy knows he could do wonders for a cape and a pair of tights.

jimmy creech

MINISTER

Few people (gay or straight) are willing to sacrifice their own livelihoods in order to stand up for equal rights for gay men and lesbians. But that's what the Rev. Jimmy Creech did in September 1997 when he defied the United Methodist Church and presided over a lesbian commitment ceremony at his Omaha church. Although Creech was acquitted in an ensuing church trial, his bishop chose not to reappoint him. "They are operating on the basis of ignorance and fear and not the gospel of Jesus Christ," Creech says.

Creech now lives in Raleigh, N.C., and is writing about his experience before attempting to return to ministerial work. "That's what I understand myself to be called to do, but I don't know what's going to be possible for me in the future."

mike mc curry

FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY

While his former boss is known for speaking out of both sides of his mouth, Mike McCurry, who retired as White House press secretary October 1, has always been a straight shooter, especially when it comes to gay issues. "He has a comfort level with this topic that allows him to be assertive and aggressively straightforward in a manner that few straight people have," says Richard Socarides, the president's liaison to the gay and lesbian community.

Most recently McCurry took Senate majority leader Trent Lott to task when in June the senator compared homosexuality to kleptomania and alcoholism. "Sexual orientation is not an affliction," McCurry said, calling Lott's views "an indicator of how difficult it is to do rational work in Washington."

roseanne

ACTOR, TALK-SHOW HOST

Her smooch with Mariel Hemingway was a real eye-opener for middle-American audiences. Though Roseanne the TV series has run its course, watch for Roseanne the domestic goddess to open a few more eyes with her new talk show--The Roseanne Show--which debuted in September. No straight person has done more to put gay sensibilities into American living rooms than Roseanne. She may not be the most glamorous or eloquent person in Hollywood, but she's a venerable pioneer when it comes to accompanying gay men and lesbians into the mainstream. Roseanne says her desire is for her new show to provide a forum "for people who have healing and good things to say." With a guest list that's so far included Sandra Bernhard, Dennis Rodman, Lily Tomlin, and director John Waters, it's fairly certain that The Roseanne Show will have plenty to say.

Vilanch is head writer on Hollywood Squares. He's written every TV function--and dysfunction--imaginable, including the last nine Oscar shows.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes interview with Bette Midler
Author:VILANCH, BRUCE
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 10, 1998
Words:6447
Previous Article:Eyewitness to history.
Next Article:Hit the books.
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