The fact that the media, stoked by popular interest in celebrities’ personal sexual lives, has been fanning the flames of rumor about Winfrey’s supposed lesbian relationship with King is about more than salacious gossip-mongering. It also indicates a deep distrust within our society of women who have achieved success. The lesbian rumors speak to a perception that a woman who is so successful, and who has arrived at that success without the overt support and help of a loving husband, is abnormal.
Indeed, lesbian rumors have dogged nearly all successful female celebrities in contemporary American society, from Hillary Clinton to Martha Stewart. These women are all powerful in their fields, self-confident to the media, and are intelligent, savvy businesswomen. They represent a major threat to the male-dominated fields in which they have achieved success.
Rumors of lesbianism have long been part and parcel of celebrity gossip in Hollywood, but similar judgments await Hollywood actresses who achieve their success without a husband (or string of husbands), from Jodie Foster to, most recently, Marcia Cross of Desperate Housewives.
In February 2005, Internet rumors sparked a media frenzy about the possibility that Cross would come out as a lesbian. Soon after the news hit national outlets including CNN, Cross’ publicist issued a press release stating that the rumors were not true, but that “She is, however, very supportive of the gay and lesbian community.”
Cross went on the talk show The View shortly afterward, in an appearance scheduled before the gossip erupted, and took the opportunity to state on the air that she is not a lesbian. When asked why she thought the rumor had started, she said, “It’s very odd and I assume it’s what comes with being 42 and single. I don’t know if they needed to find a reason why I wasn’t married.”Cross became engaged in August 2005 to stockbroker Tom Mahoney, whom she married in June 2006.
Cross’ suggestion for why the rumor began speaks to longstanding, sexist beliefs about women who remain unmarried. While unmarried older men are rarely rumored to be gay, older single women are considered to be unnatural; lesbianism is often seen as the answer to the mystery of how a woman could live on her own without a man.
The rumors about professional boxer Laila Ali’s sexuality that arose in the fall of 2005 further underscore the connection in popular consciousness between a woman’s marital status and her sexuality. As Ali was undergoing a divorce from her husband, rumors surfaced that the boxer, who is the daughter of legendary Muhammad Ali, was in a lesbian relationship with rapper and singer Queen Latifah.
Laila Ali quickly issued a press release declaring that she is not a lesbian, stating, “Yes, I am in the process of getting a divorce, but I am not dating, nor will I ever be dating a woman, because I am not gay. It is unfortunate that my divorce has started rumors in the media that are untrue.” Her denial lacked the gay-positive spin of Cross and Winfrey, which may reflect homophobia on Ali’s part, but likely also reflects the homophobic nature of professional boxing. Indeed, women’s sports in general which is often rife with rumors of lesbianism, particularly in the WBNA is still one of the more homophobic arenas of public life.
The ways that Winfrey, Cross and Ali have addressed these lesbian rumors indicate that although the times have certainly changed for lesbians in this society, we have by no means reached a place where one’s sexuality does not matter. If a woman lacks a male partner, or even if she has a male partner but he is perceived to be the subordinate one in their relationship, she is opening herself up to rumors of lesbianism.