The woman who loved too much

It's official: lesbians and gay men come out differently

It's official: lesbians and gay men come out differently. While George Michael is caught off guard in a public lavatory, Ellen Morgan's revelation was trailed, plotted and coolly orchestrated in front of 45 million TV viewers. As coming out stories go, theirs couldn't contrast more. In the celebrity stakes and ratings game, however, judgment is still on hold.

Morgan is the alter-ego of American comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who caused a sensation in the US last spring when the "coming out episode" of her show grabbed 36 per cent of the audience share. DeGeneres, who has been starring in her own middle-ranking ABC sitcom since 1994, decided that, at 37, she was tired of being "in the closet".

Her vehicle for coming out was a novel one: she scripted it for her TV persona - a move that rocketed her to new heights of fame. While the right-wing evangelist Jerry Falwell nicknamed her "Ellen DeGenerate", she found favour elsewhere. She and her real-life girlfriend, actress Anne Heche, were introduced to President Clinton at a black-tie dinner and the glut of titillated media coverage they garnered has continued unabated, further fuelled by their "marriage" earlier this month.

And so it was a slightly world-weary DeGeneres who recently faced the British media. Despite coming over to herald the broadcast on Channel 4 tonight of the coming out episode, she was, she says, "trying to lay low". Channel 4, meanwhile, has whipped up a whole "coming out party" around the show, including a documentary about the whole furore which reveals a more serious side to DeGeneres.

The shows leading up to this climax have been littered with all manner of blatant "clues". But when the "I'm gay" punchline finally comes, it does not disappoint. DeGeneres wittily employs a host of celebrity lesbians as walk-on extras, including Melissa Etheridge and model Jenny Shimuzu. The naff folk-singer at the lesbian coffee shop is played by kd lang, complete with unfashionable waistcoat and tacky rainbow badges, while Oprah Winfrey is the earnest therapist to whom Ellen confesses her new secret.

Yet for all the episode's success in the US, coming out led the series into unexplored territory. Disagreement broke out between Disney TV (its owners) and DeGeneres about the extent to which "being gay" should be part of Ellen's life. While Disney wanted "baby steps", DeGeneres wanted giant strides. But what would Ellen's new lifestyle as a lesbian involve? DeGeneres wanted to highlight the social context of sexuality - serious subjects such as coming out in the family and workplace - over and above sex itself.

"I don't want people to watch me kiss somebody," she said. "That's not what this is about." However, "lesbian life" and "ordinary life" were deemed incompatible by Dean Valentine, the cautious head of Disney TV. "I don't know if the broader American public wants to see a weekly show about lesbianism," he said. "The real promise of the show was that straight and gay people could arrive at a point-of-view together. Some of that possibility has been squandered." The fifth series did see a drop in the ratings.

Further criticism also came from an unlikely source. "It's one thing to have a lead character who is an out lesbian," says Chastity Bono, spokeswoman for the Gay and Lesbians Alliance Against Defamation, "still another when every episode deals with specific gay issues." Her concern was that the larger public would feel excluded from gay "in-jokes" because Ellen had become "too gay".

"How do you make someone less gay?" DeGeneres asks. "It's the exact same show, but just if you replace a man with a woman. You're not used to seeing two women together, but we're not underwater, not in a different atmosphere." Logic suggested that Ellen Morgan should get a girlfriend. But ABC was vehement that Ellen would "not become the lesbian dating show".

In this way, sex always presented a problem for Ellen. Dressed in natty suits and baby blue sweaters, Morgan is as cute as Pee Wee Herman. Despite her fey neuroticism, she has always been a wholesome American girl. "I wasn't playing a straight character," she points out. "I was playing a very asexual one." Other factors also explain Ellen's sexlessness. Lesbians who kiss have always proved beyond the pale for prime-time TV executives.

But despite her reluctance to play into the hands of her detractors, DeGeneres did introduce love interest in the most recent series of Ellen, culminating in a simple, same-sex kiss. This resulted in a parental advisory warning being slapped on the programme. It put Ellen outside the safety realm of family entertainment. A new series has not been commissioned.

DeGeneres denies that she took the programme too far in any direction and blames the decision to chop the show on weak executives and "lack of support". By the end of the process, she found it impossible to escape being defined by her sexuality, by both conservatives who wanted to restrict that definition and a gay lobby who wanted to expand it. "I don't see it as being political," she insists, "but everyone else does."

`Normal life" and "gay life" still prove difficult notions to square. Whereas George Michael's recent misdemeanour is viewed as a "blip", Ellen Morgan's whole existence was swamped by the nebulous nature of her "lesbian lifestyle". The twists and turns of Ellen's story illustrate the fact that making lesbian sexuality visible is always going to be problematic. "I never wanted to be `the gay girl'," DeGeneres says wistfully. "I went through a transformation about what was important in the show and what was really wrong."