The 15 Biggest Lesbians in Show Biz History, From Nazimova to Wanda Sykes

Also: The dish on Bette Midler and Cyndi Lauper's Pride performances.

Newsflash: Show biz attracts queers! A lot of us tend to have talent, expression, and also a desire to pretend to be other people. And as a queer who writes about such things, I’ve already picked the 12 gayest men in show biz history, from Paul Lynde to Billy Porter. Well, now I’m giving the ladies their turn.

Here are the 15 women who’ve most screamed “lesbian” while carving out unique and influential careers in the biz. I’m not including newscasters and I’m also omitting people who identify as bisexuals or sexually fluid (though I am included some semi-closeted icons). There will be separate lists—don’t panic. So here come the dyke-ons.

  1. Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)

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    Working her way up the ladder from the script department to director, Arzner was a trailblazer who directed such 1930s female-starring vehicles as Christopher Strong, Craig’s Wife, and The Bride Wore Red. The longtime lover of dancer Marion Morgan, Arzner wore suits and was unapologetically lesbianic, basically directing her own life and career trajectory.

    Runners-up include other lesbian directors like Jennie Livingston, Cheryl Dunye, the Wachowskis, Dee Rees, Rose Troche, writer-director-actor Guinevere Turner, Jill Soloway, Monika Treut, and Barbara Hammer, plus producer Christine Vachon, writer Fran Lebowitz, photographer Annie Leibovitz.

  2. Alla Nazimova (1879-1945)

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    A Russian actress who starred on Broadway and also in movies (both silent and with sound), Alla supposedly hooked up with other grand dames like Eva Le Gallienne and the aforementioned Dorothy Arzner. She did indulge in a “lavender marriage” to a man (while married to another guy she’d wed early on), but she mainly enjoyed wild parties at her Sunset Boulevard manse with a “sewing circle” of other lesbians. And ah, what they sewed!

    Also: Lynn Fontanne, Katherine Cornell, Patsy Kelly, Constance Ford, Kristy McNichol, Linda Hunt, Heather Matarazzo, Cherry Jones, Pamela Sneed, Ruby Rose.

  3. Rosie O’Donnell (1962-)

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    When she was the queen of nice on her ‘90s daytime TV talk show, I urged the hilarious Rosie to come out and be the queen of honest. She did so with a vengeance in 2002 and never looked back. From Broadway to The View and beyond, Rosie—who’s the mother of five—has stayed outspoken enough to keep Donald Trump going crazy, which is one of several things we treasure her for.

  4. Marga Gomez (1960-)

    Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic

    has long been a sharp commentator on the life of a Latin lesbian, while also skewering Hollywood clichés about queers, in her groundbreaking one-woman shows. Robin Williams was so captivated that he called Marga “the lesbian Lenny Bruce” and booked her on Comic Relief in the ‘90s. She wore a burgundy suit and vest and helped bring lesbian humor to the masses.

  5. Lily Tomlin (1939-)

    Christopher Polk/Getty Images for JumpLine

    Tomlin took forever to come out, but she did so, erasing any possible suspicion that Jane Wagner has just been her roommate since 1971. Tomlin’s droll wit has enchanted, from her Oscar-nominated turn in Nashville to her lesbian poet character in Grandma to the current Netflix hit Grace and Frankie, about rivals forced to confront the fact that their husbands have fallen in love. Most memorably, she and John Travolta had the same hairdo in the Jane Wagner-written and directed androgynous 1978 flop Moment by Moment. But Lily was on top!

  6. Melissa Etheridge (1961-)

    Paul Morigi/Getty Images for National Geographic

    A rocking singer/songwriter with a powerhouse voice, Melissa invited young ladies to “Come to My Window” and also to be out and proud, announcing her own sexuality at a 1993 queer event for Bill Clinton’s initial inauguration. She’s won a Grammy, an Oscar (for Best Song), and our admiration for years as someone who helped make it okay for music stars to be out and loud.

    Runners-up: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Brandi Carlile, Chely Wright, Tracy Chapman, Queen Latifah, Brooke Candy, Missy Elliott.

  7. Wanda Sykes (1964-)

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    Sassiness personified, Wanda has always been a scream in film comedies, animated films, and TV shows from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Blackish. I spotted her on Fire Island back in the day, so I wasn’t surprised when she finally came out in 2006, marrying girlfriend Alex Niedbalski two years later. For lesbians of color, she’s been a magic Wanda.

    Runners-up: Sandra Bernhard, Robin Tyler, Judy Gold, Kate Clinton, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Reno, Lisa Kron.

  8. Ellen Page (1987-)

    Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb

    For years, I wrote about the Canadian actor-producer being a lesbian, but she didn’t come out until 2014. Inspiringly, she’s been wonderfully vocal and vivid ever since, always with a potent point of view.

  9. Jane Lynch (1960-)

    Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TWC

    So hilarious in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, Jane became a household lesbian as Sue Sylvester, the ruthless cheerleading coach who wasn’t very gleeful on Glee. A witty and wise divorcée, Jane is a comic gift to the lesbian world, and to everyone else, too.

  10. Jodie Foster (1962-)

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    I’m still trying to make heads or tails out of Jodie’s long-winded coming out speech at the Golden Globes in 2013, though addressing the subject at all was a step forward after years of speculation, suggestion, and insider knowledge. And even if it took eons, knowing that such a two-time, Oscar-winning icon is one of us and says so herself is more meaningful than the silence of the lesbians.

    Also: Kelly McGillis, Amandla Stenberg.

  11. Ellen DeGeneres (1958-)

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    Squeamish people didn’t want Ellen or even her sitcom character to come out, but both happened in 1997, and the masses had to deal. When she was publicly holding hands with actor Anne Heche that year, the media generally refused to report what was happening, stymied by what was going on right up in their grills. I learned that the two had been making out at an NYC lesbian bar, so I contacted the Page Six column and we teamed up to uncork the story of their antics, with more stories to come. That relationship is long gone, but Ellen is married to Portia de Rossi and her daytime talk show remains a phenomenon 16 years after its inception. And by the way, towards the beginning of that show, I wrote that Ellen should be openly lesbian on air—as in actually saying honest sexual things, the way straight TV hosts say straight things—and I was criticized for asking too much. (“Isn’t it enough that she’s open off camera?”) But she went there, and in the process has helped shake the biz up and equalize our queer identity.

  12. Sarah Gilbert (1975-)

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    Playing the wisecracking Darlene Conner on Roseanne starting in 1988 established the career of Gilbert, who went on to films, producing, and The Talk (which she’s leaving as of next season). It was reportedly while dating Roseanne costar Johnny Galecki that Sarah realized she was a lesbian, and she ended up becoming quite open about that and other topics. She was also honest about how she didn’t care for Roseanne’s notorious tweet about Valerie Jarrett, a reaction that Roseanne credits for getting her fired from her own show. Now that’s lesbian power.

    Also: Amanda Bearse.

  13. K.D. Lang (1961-)

    Paul Natkin/Getty Images

    Canadian singer-songwriter Lang has a voice like velvet and artistry to match. When she came out in 1992 (a year before Melissa Etheridge), she satisfied a “Constant Craving” for lesbians to have a musical role model. Later that decade, she started touring with old-school crooner Tony Bennett, which provided a fascinating mashup of styles and sexualities that totally clicked.

  14. Lea DeLaria (1958-)

    Rich Polk/Getty Images for Netflix

    A fabulous butch, Lea was the first openly gay comic to appear on a late-night talk show (The Arsenio Hall Show) and has always been frank and funny, also proving to be an expert jazz singer. Her success on Orange Is the New Black was a long time coming, and the girlfriend stories she’s told me through the years have kept me entertained even more than that.

  15. Kate McKinnon (1984-)

    Rich Fury/WireImage

    I was thrilled when an alumnus of Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show was brought into the Saturday Night Live ensemble. Kate is the first openly lesbian member of that cast, and as such, she has tackled a multitude of characters, branched out into movies, and been nominated for six Emmys. And check out her Ellen impression. Thanks to Kate, Ellen, and so many others on this list for obliterating the old “humorless dyke” stereotype. With a vengeance.

Maybes: Agnes Moorehead, Spring Byington, Marjorie Main, Lizabeth Scott, Katharine Hepburn, Janet Gaynor, Ann B. Davis, Nancy Kulp.

All You Need Is Love Ball

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Lesbians were instrumental in the early fight against AIDS, and in fact, the whole queer community kicked ass, along with our allies, to bring awareness and money to the cause.

David Barton’s ex, the surreally fabulous party thrower Susanne Bartsch, did two Love Balls, elaborate fashion-oriented galas benefiting AIDS charities, at Roseland in 1989 and ’91. For one of them, I was in drag (as “Miss Queens”) in the House of Nicole Miller and for the other, I served gossip in the House of Dish, which I organized and MC’d. The other night, for Love Ball III at Gotham Hall, I was content to sit back and watch, and this time found that it wasn’t a series of fashion house production numbers, it was a judged competition with specific categories à la Pose balls. 

In the cocktail hour, I got to gasp at all the looks, spot everyone from Frank DeCaro’s new book, Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business (including myself), and hobnob with porn star turned dentist Rafael Alencar, whom I seriously told, “You have to drill me!” We then sat down to a $1000-a-plate fried chicken dinner, complete with tater tots, a salad in a cup, and mini muffins, and it was so delish it actually tasted like a million.

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And then the show started with Ms. Bartsch in tip-top form (showing off her outfit, then vowing to “eradicate this fucking disease”) and Billy Porter hosting in ever-changing ensembles that got even more eye-grabbing as the night went on. In a yellow suit with a train and a white bonnet, he brought out judges like Nicky Hilton Rothschild, whom he urged to “Give me some sugar.” Paris’ little sis looked confused and started hitting him with ruffles from her dress, prompting Billy to crack, “She don’t know what sugar is? I guess it’s a cultural thing.”

Taking note of another judge, Mary J. Blige, Billy said, “I tried to get that asymmetrical Mary J. Blige bob that goes over one eye, but I couldn’t get my wig person to do it fast enough!” As wonderfully extra looks and movements filled categories like “Head To Toe” and “Move To The Groove,” Billy made remarks like “Giving us neon pickle juice realness!” and “Are you ready for the next category? I’m not standing here for my health, bitches!” The event was slick and organized, with DJ Amber Valentine never missing a beat as the onstage talent kept piling up in an orgy of glitter. Proceeds benefited the CFDA-Vogue Initiative/New York City AIDS Fund of the New York Community Trust. And we also got some macaroons—and a lot of sugar, too.

Working Girls Just Want to Have Fun

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Billy Porter got to reconnect with his Kinky Boots cocreator Cyndi Lauper backstage at World Pride’s opening night gala at the Barclays Center last week, and I know this because I was there, too, getting ready for Cyndi’s opening number! I’m a regular at this by now. In 1994, Cyndi booked me to dance in drag in a video she directed of “Hey Now (Girls Just Want to Have Fun”)—the reggae-tinged remake of the smash song—and also to perform it for the opening of Gay Games at the gigantic Yankee Stadium. And she just had me learning choreography again, this time out of drag, but with lots of Drag Race girls, as she sang a Junior Vasquez remix of “True Colors” for Pride.

As the gala started, Cyndi rivetingly crawled out of a glittery earth orb and pranced down a long runway, and then me, Milk, Dusty Ray Bottoms, Lady Bunny, Flotilla De Barge, Chris Tanner, Bill Coleman, Yuhua Hamasaki, Phi Phi O’Hara, Alexis Michelle, and others came out waving glow wands, sashaying down the same runway and circling her, with all sorts of Broadway moves we’d been rehearsed at all day.

Backstage afterward, I asked Cyndi about the Broadway musical she’s writing based on Working Girl and she said it’s coming along; the rights have been attained. I said she’d be great for the wacky Joan Cusack role, Cyn, and Cyndi remembered that she had actually been asked to come in for the part of Tess and also Cyn for the 1988 movie, but she’d had a horrible experience on the movie Vibes and also wasn’t well-versed in Mike Nichols’ work, so she didn’t go! “Well, now you have the musical,” I said, “and thanks for being one of the first stars to make it okay to be in gay parades. You were the biggest.” “We’re all family,” she replied, and it was lovely to be reminded that some celebrities’ true colors are gorgeous.

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On Saturday, Bette Midler did her own showing for the gays at the spectacular Jake Resnicow-produced WeParty, AKAPride Festival’s “main event” at the Javits Center. First, a video was shown, with different celebrities talking about Pride, including Cher, who gave her love but said, “I’m sorry I can’t be here.” At that point, the video suddenly stopped and out came Bette, exclaiming, “But I’m here!” Wearing sparkly pants and a solid black top, the Divine Miss M looked out at the vast sea of guys and crowed, “That’s a lot of gay! And believe me, I’ve seen gay at every one of my shows. Congrats on 50 years of perseverance and triumph. As I look out at you, I see a future that’s informed, tolerant, and kind.”

As for the not so kind, Bette referenced Trump’s nutty tweet about her by cracking, “Just two weeks ago, I was a ‘washed up psycho.’ Well, I recovered completely, and there’s something I learned from the president’s lunatic attack.” Adding some words about sitting on a throne and tweeting at 1 am, she launched into her trademark number “Friends (“You got to have friends”), implying that Trump needs to get some, and then she sauntered off gaily into the night. I squinted and pictured everyone in towels à la the Continental Baths, and it wasn’t that hard, since everyone was in hot pants anyway!

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.