Role Models and the Public Face of Marriage Equality

Maybe you’ve heard the one about the gay wedding planner. His husband filed for divorce claiming the wedding planner was a sex addict who frequented prostitutes while their surrogate was carrying twins. Not laughing? That’s because it isn’t a joke. It’s the messy split between David Tutera and Ryan Jurica, very public proof that gay couples are—as US Magazine might put it—just like their straight counterparts. And it’s only the beginning.

From Tiger Woods’ text messages way back to Brad Pitt’s on set romance with Angelina Jolie, straight celebrity divorces have kept observers happily scandalized. Though we might cringe at Tiger’s arrogance or sympathize with Jennifer’s vulnerability, for most of us, the line between celebrity and self is as thick as the 2000 miles separating say, Saganash, Michigan from Los Angeles, California. But as the LGBTQ community begins to see ourselves represented by certain famous pairings, celebrity missteps may become less entertaining, more potentially damaging.

Gay celebrity couples are a relatively recent phenomenon. Married gay celebs even newer.

Initially, the visibility of pairs like Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher or Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka seemed like a boon to gay rights. For years we’ve been told that coming out is political, that the more gays go about our lives openly, the more accepted those lives will become. Then, of course, Melissa and Julie became Melissa and Tammy became Melissa and Linda (Wallem). Alimony wars were fought, a package of sex toys was delivered to the wrong girlfriend and Tammy Lynn Michaels took to her blog to broadcast the whole sweeping saga.

Melissa Etheridge and Tammy Lynn Michaels in 2007

Getty Images

Just like Jennifer had the right to publicly discuss Brad’s missing “sensitivity chip,” Tammy had the right to write rambling poetry about Melissa’s alleged lies, but what was Tammy’s responsibility? As a member of the gay community, should she have paused to think how her from-the-heart missives might make all of us appear? Maybe. But take this idea further and it falls apart. Choosing to share one’s writing is one thing, but making life choices based on a desire to keep up appearances seems less worthwhile. For example, should Melissa have stayed with Tammy so as not to break up a public gay family? Probably not. Still, who knows how many hetero Hollywood marriages are based on image control? If it’s good enough for the straights is it good enough for us?

As we celebrate the sweeping legalization of gay marriage, part of what we’re exalting is the freedom for gay couples to upend their laundry baskets in front of the world. For every well-behaved Portia and Ellen (knock wood), there’s well, Anne and Ellen. Certainly there have been bad heterosexual partners throughout celebrity history—Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor, for example, were the Brad and Angelina of their time, and let’s not forget Billy Crudup leaving a pregnant Mary-Louise Parker for Claire Danes. There have also been amazing long-term gay relationships, however unrecognized or uncelebrated by the straight world. But now that we are on the radar, should we worry that any instance of gay celebrity bad behavior will undermine the community’s hope of equality and acceptance?

As a public face of gay marriage, what does it mean when David Tutera and Ryan Jurica’s union goes up in spectacular flames? On the cusp of dialing an escort’s number, should David have thought, “I’m a role model with unborn children. I’ve got to watch my step?” Possibly. Then again, sex addiction has played a role in several heterosexual celebrity splits, for example, David Duchovny and Tea Leoni’s protracted separation. Prostitution scandals have surfaced surrounding straight celebs like Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley. In the end, David Duchovny got a TV show which drew from his bad boy image and no one assumed all English couples fell victim to hookers. But when a gay couple breaks up amidst controversy, one wonders, what will middle America think of us now?