She was our Buddy and an Angel, both on and off camera. These were the names of Kristy McNichol’s iconic characters in the TV series Family and the movie Little Darlings, but off screen, she emblazoned these symbols for every young lesbian in hiding. We just didn’t know that she was hiding, too.
If you don’t know Kristy then maybe you’re a millennial, or something close to it, coming of age in a time when actresses are cheered for coming out. But In the 1970s, it seemed as if we had only Kristy to identify with, and when you gazed at her — trust me — she was more than enough to behold.
Her 1970s tomboy teenage persona could be compared with Ellen Page’s Juno. Both actresses were idolized for their independent, outspoken and somewhat quirky characters who won us over with their smart minds and a certain, indescribable vibe. It’s the vibe that makes you press your face to the screen, and you can’t understand why you’re swooning over her, rather than her older, Tiger Beat teen idol brother, Jimmy. (Especially when the siblings stand side-by-side, belting disco songs on The Merv Griffin Show).
With Kristy, we all spoke in code of “tomboy” and “sporty” because there was nobody who would explain who she was and why we worshipped her. There were the early photos: Kristy, skateboarding through the movie studio lots; Kristy squinting in the sun while straddling her new motorcycle. And best of all: Kristy kicking Melissa Gilbert’s Little House on the Prairie’s ass on Battle of the Network Stars.
If you were like me, you followed her feathery hair from Dynamite to celebrity stardom, watching her win two Emmy awards before she turned 18. But following her breakout movie role as the bad-girl Angel (corrupting Tatum O’Neal) in Little Darlings, changed everything.
At first, a subtle shift: Her famous winged hairstyle was replaced by a 1980s bi-level perm. But as the 80s eclipsed her tomboy image, she turned unrecognizable in the arms of Christopher Atkins, the proto-male with matching perm, most famous for shagging Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon.
After a few movie flops, Kristy disappeared. In hindsight, I confess that I can’t say whether I even noticed. Like many women, I was too busy becoming a young adult, trying to fit into 1980s adulthood. It seemed as though there were plenty of gay women around, even in the media, but nobody dared come out.
Empty Nest arrived in the late 1980s. It was a successful, stable, but entirely bland Saturday evening sitcom, casting adult Kristy in the supporting cast. I remember staring into my TV all over again, only this time for a different reason. I simply couldn’t understand the grown women inside my screen. She seemed different, older than her actual age, and etched with hard lines. What I learned later, as many of us have from her interviews, is that Kristy’s former starlit life was far darker than it appeared.
To me, it serves no point to replay the storylines of her personal life. There is plenty to google, if you like. What I find so relevant is that when you read through the incidents reported in the press, I never found mention of what it was like to be a closeted, hiding young lesbian in Hollywood in the 1970s and 80s. It was not until 2013 that Kristy broke her silence, came out, and announced her commitment to combatting bullying against gay youth. She posed proudly with her partner of more than twenty years.
But still, when I see the now 50-something out and proud lesbian actress, my heart breaks for the girl who felt forced to transform from a spunky, sporty girl into a Hollywood female stereotype. And maybe I cry for myself a little too. Because for so many of us who grew up during this time, and afraid to come out, we all played roles — rather badly, at times — that were never ours to own.