Anne Heche Deserved Better Than Being the “Canary in the Cultural Coal Mine”

Anne Heche deserved much, much better. Because of the way she was portrayed in the media, she became the punchline to the cruel and ignorant joke that bisexual people can’t make up their minds. Publications continue to mock her dating life even after she has passed away as if it were a puzzle that must be solved.

As if queer, bi, and pan people are only an interesting novelty to be marveled at and puzzled about. “Oh my goodness, you mean to tell me that she has a soft spot for females as well as males How, though!”

Don’t act as if there aren’t other people and other ways of life out there simply because your simple mind can’t wrap around the idea. Yes, and their arguments hold water. However, Heche was never given the respect of being regarded seriously as a survivor of abuse, an addict, or a queer woman until the day she died.

Laughed At

I was just a little kid when Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres first started dating. I was probably around 10 years old when that conversation took place, thus it never entered my mind. Although Heche made perfect sense to me, I began to know her as an indecisive woman.

An episode from “Robin Williams Live on Broadway” comes to mind. The stand-up special was one of the first I ever saw on my own, and I was instantly a fan. There was, however, one particular section that left me feeling… odd.

The HBO special begins with Williams discussing the weather before he quickly shifts gears to make fun of Heche’s outspoken sexuality. “This Spring,” he said, “flowers were like Anne Heche going, ‘I’m out! I’m in! I’m out! I’m in! I don’t know where to go!'” It was obvious that my buddies were having fun, so I joined in.

Audience members’ laughter could be heard plainly from here. On the other hand, I felt a strong urge to retreat inside of myself and hide. Such powerful rhetoric was a major reason in why I didn’t come out as pansexual until my late 20s. No, I seriously doubt that I was the only one.

But that was the common view back then, and it stayed that way for over two decades. Anne Heche was a strange, unreliable woman who couldn’t make up her mind about who she fancied having sex with.

The One That Got Away

Heche was a newcomer at the time of her meeting with DeGeneres, but she was treated as though she were not part of her own discourse almost immediately after the two were spotted together. In the first paragraph of their 1997 article “Problem for Hollywood: DeGeneres’ Companion,” The New York Times stated:

Anne Heche, a 27-year-old rising actress, and potential movie star, recently came out as being in a lesbian relationship with the comedian Ellen DeGeneres, presenting Hollywood with the extremely delicate problem of how to handle a gay actress whose career has been built on playing heterosexual roles.

At the time, Esquire referred to her as “The One Who Got Away,” implying that straight men had missed their chance. The actor told The Advocate, “That was hilarious. Like I was owned.”

Following her 2001 marriage to Coley Lafoon, the public, especially celebrities like Robin Williams, pounced on her past romantic choices and gave them a thorough thrashing.

Judged to be a Fraud

The Los Angeles Times asked Heche in an insensitive interview in 2001, “Do you recognize that people are more interested in this aspect of your life than your work?” in reference to her friendship with Ellen DeGeneres. Her autobiography was titled “Call Me Crazy,” and she was doing a tour to promote it.

The interview she gave to The Advocate during the same press trip was much more vicious than the rest. Because of her activism for the LGBTQ+ community, the interviewer not only questioned her sexuality but also the legitimacy of her previous partnerships, her relationship with Lafoon, and her decision to get married at all.

In response to just being told “if you cross the boundary, it’ll bite you. And it did,” Heche said “God, do not diminish this to ‘I left her because I was not gay.’ That makes me so angry because it makes my commitment not truthful!”

 

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This is Stockwell’s response: “Anybody who’s seen your work knows you’re a great actor. Do you see an Oscar in your future?” She went as far as to call into question Heche’s account of childhood abuse at her father’s hands, saying, “Statistically it’s heterosexual men, not gay men, who molest girl children,” and going on to wonder, “But why would a gay man rape a girl?” As if there were something to prove, she questioned Heche’s preference for the term “abuse” over “incest.”

She Was All on Her Own

Those she had battled to save, the queer community, turned their backs on her and laughed at her antics. Among the many myths about Heche’s sexuality, one of the more subtle said that, despite her seeming attraction to women, Heche was actually straight. She was made to feel bad by the queer community for having straight and queer-presenting relationships and blamed for the general public’s view of sexuality as a personal decision.

Because she was a survivor of terrible abuse and because she had adopted a heterosexual identity for her own safety, this was extremely detrimental to her health. To make matters worse, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Heche was mocked for the ways in which she dealt with her problems, leading to headlines like “Anne Heche’s Lost Weekend” on ABC News and “The Anne Heche Mystery” in People magazine.

Almost everyone in the media spoke horribly cruelly about Heche. She was held to an impossible standard and subjected to widespread criticism. Before the term “bisexual” was often used, she was isolated from other people because of her sexual orientation. Absolute and total isolation.

Canary in the Cultural Coal Mine

The public and horrific nature of Anne Heche’s treatment had to have far-reaching effects on the security of the LGBTQ community, including bisexuals and pansexuals like me. Because of the incoherence of the discourse, it was very traumatic to have to grow up with it.

Why should the fact that she likes both sexes be a mystery? I did. It was my impression that most people felt this way. Seeing how people responded to her unique views on labels and sexuality at the time has shown me that I was mistaken. There was no way around it. I obviously missed something funny because everyone around me was laughing. And even about myself.

Call me whatever you want, but I don’t call myself anything,” Heche stated emphatically during an interview with The Advocate. Labels are subjective and should be chosen based on personal preference. Heche was revolutionary even in 2001. It’s true that the majority of people viewed sexuality as a discrete option 21 years ago.

Someone who prefers the company of other guys is considered gay. One who only dates other women; a lesbian. On the whole, though, you were a straight shooter. About the same time that Ellen DeGeneres came out in the public eye and was hailed as a hero, Heche threw it into disarray in a highly visible way.

She signaled to the cultural world that they were not prepared for complex conversations about queerness, and thus she was compared to a canary in a coal mine.

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