Portia de Rossi Inches Out

Portia de Rosside Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres at the HBO Golden Globes after-party

It has been anything but business as usual for Arrested Development star Portia de Rossi in the last few months. While public interest in her television series continues to be limited, the public’s interest in her personal life has taken off since she began dating Ellen DeGeneres in December.

While de Rossi may not be happy with all the attention focused on her personal life, she is becoming more comfortable with it, as evidenced by her response in a recent interview with style magazine Paper to the question of whether she feels any sense of responsibility about being gay in the mainstream:

"If I told you I haven’t really thought about it, you probably wouldn’t believe me. [My sexuality is] a part of me that I really like. But it’s not the totality of me. It’s not a passion of mine to become political in any way, but I do think it’s important to see gay men and women having big careers and very full, rich lives."

The fact that de Rossi answered the question at all — and that she used the "g" word, the first time she’s done so on the record — is the latest sign of a small but significant strategy shift in how de Rossi publicly handles her personal life.

In the past, de Rossi has consistently shied away from saying anything about her personal relationships in interviews, never officially acknowledging her well-known (in entertainment circles, at least) relationship with girlfriend Francesca Gregorini, but never denying it either. She always arrived alone to high-profile events like the Golden Globes, and only met up with Gregorini at the after-parties, where the two rarely allowed themselves to be photographed alone together.

"It sounds so trite, but my private life is mine," de Rossi told Australia’s The Age in May of 2003. "When you have the paparazzi hiding in the bushes outside your home, about the only thing you can control is how you respond publicly. When I hear celebrities talking about their marriages or other things that are intensely personal, I cringe. I just think, ‘Keep it to yourself’. It’s like desperate attention-seeking."

But de Rossi and Gregorini’s break-up in December put de Rossi — and her sexuality — in the spotlight because of the other party involved: Ellen DeGeneres, perhaps the most visible out lesbian in American pop culture today (who was also in a committed relationship at the time with girlfriend Alexandra Hedison, which made the story even more irresistible for the media).

As Tammy LynnMichaelsquickly discovered when she and Melissa Etheridge became involved, you can’t start dating one of America’s Lesbian Sweethearts and expect to stay closeted — something de Rossi surely knew when she began dating DeGeneres.

De Rossi appears to have adapted to the new scrutiny by combining her characteristic guardedness with select moments of openness, still refusing to say much about her sexuality on the record — telling Paper magazine "As much as I’d like to tell you about my private life, if I did, it wouldn’t be private" — but saying a little more now than she used to, and openly attending high-profile events with DeGeneres (something she almost never did with Gregorini).

De Rossi and DeGeneres made their first public appearance together at an after-party for the Golden Globes in January, and then attended the SAG Awards and the Grammys together in the weeks following. De Rossi is also a frequent audience member at the tapings of DeGeneres’s talk show, and DeGeneres has begun to mention her relationship with de Rossi in interviews, as she did as a February 5th call-in on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show — although like de Rossi, she says very little about the relationship beyond acknowledging its existence.

Why does de Rossi’s degree of openness about her sexuality matter to anyone but her? For exactly the reason she states — because it is important that people "see gay men and women having big careers and very full, rich lives." And even with all of the progress we’ve made on that front in the last few decades, today most Americans can still count on only two hands the number of gay women that fit that criteria.

While it is certainly not de Rossi’s or DeGeneres’s responsibility to represent all lesbians, as public figures, their sexuality does carry more weight than most people’s, whether they like it or not. So while idle curiosity does fuel some of the public’s interest in how de Rossi and DeGegeneres present their relationship to the public, its affect on lesbian visibility makes it of interest to the gay community.

Sexuality is just one part of who we are, as de Rossi tells Paper magazine. But until we’ve lost count of the number of high-profile women who are open about their lesbian relationships, the willingness of de Rossi and others like her to be open about their sexuality still matters. Interviews like this one are a step in the right direction.

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