I AM THE GAY parent" declared Rosie O’Donnell to Diane Sawyer on ABC’s March 14 Primetime Thursday, during an interview in which she both came out of the closet and declared war on the State of Florida for denying lesbians and gay men the right to adopt children. Her avowal — evoking the straightforwardness of Flaubert’s curiously gendered assertion, "Madame Bovary, c’est moi" or ƒmile Zola’s angrily forthright "J’accuse!" — was matter-of-fact, simple, and endlessly arrogant. O’Donnell’s statement has become a banner, a call to arms in the gay and mainstream press in the ongoing fight for the rights of queer families. But while many are noting how much good Rosie O’Donnell can do for this issue, it may be just as important — if not more so — to ask whether she can also do harm.
The coming out of the "Queen of Nice" was no big surprise. She has been repeatedly outed by the tabloids over the past two years; long before that, her sexuality was an open secret in the gay community and in most of the mainstream gossip columns and Internet chat rooms. Even O’Donnell treated it like a non-event — well, as much of a non-event as it could be, given that it provided the much-hyped hook to Sawyer’s interview — when she shrugged, saying to her interlocutor: "Every person in my life, yourself included, knows my partner. I’m in a committed, long-term, life relationship. So it’s not a surprise to anyone in my life." Of course the fact that O’Donnell had carefully timed her grand exit from the closet to coincide with the publication of her autobiography, Find Me (Warner Books), and the self-imposed end of her daily talk show did make a few people wonder whether, in fact, publicity had been the mother of revelation.
Although coming out is not as unusual among celebrities as it was a decade or so ago — remember when Elton John seemed caught in a revolving door of sexual orientation? — Rosie O’Donnell has done something so atypical as to be completely unique. At the same time that she publicly declared her lesbianism, she aligned herself with a queer political cause: the right of gay people to adopt children. Specifically, she is going head-to-head with a Florida state law that forbids single gay people, gay couples, and unmarried heterosexual couples from adopting children. The 1977 law was one of the wretched offshoots of Anita Bryant’s "Save Our Children" campaign to repeal the Dade County gay-rights law passed earlier that year. There have been challenges to the adoption law over the decades, but this past August a federal court upheld it, a decision now under appeal by the ACLU in the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
The ACLU challenge takes up the case of Steve Lofton and Roger Croteau, two gay men who are raising five HIV-positive children. Three are foster-care kids placed with them when they lived in Florida. After they moved to Oregon (because of the illness of one of their parents), the kids went with them under a standard relocation policy. They then adopted two foster kids in Oregon, where adoptions by gay people are legal. Last year, Lofton and Croteau were told by Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) that they had to give up their son Bert, whom they had raised for 10 years, because his term of placement had ended, and they could not adopt him because they are homosexuals. In addition to the court appeal, the ACLU launched a national public-relations campaign and set up a Web site — lethimstay.com — to enlist popular support. Within hours after O’Donnell mentioned the Web site during her interview, more then 24,000 e-mails were sent to Florida governor Jeb Bush and Kathleen Kearney, head of the state’s DCF, to protest the law. In two more days, that number had jumped to over 63,000.
There is little question that the Florida law is a nightmare — only Mississippi and Utah have similar laws — or that Lofton and Croteau, who have won awards for their foster care, are wonderful parents. It is also true that O’Donnell deserves praise for entering the political fray. Despite some sniping about the timing of her coming out — syndicated columnist Michael Alvear noted on CNN’s TalkBack Live that "she hid her sexuality to sell her show, and then she exploited it to sell her book" — the reality is that celebrity comings out are always fraught with PR problems. If Tom Cruise and J.Lo were both to come out tomorrow, half the gay community would celebrate and the other half would complain that it took them too long.
But O’Donnell’s entrance into the perilous arena of politics and public policy — despite her good intentions — raises serious questions not only about her political sophistication, but also about the disastrous effect her words and actions might have on gay politics as a whole. She is charging around like a bull in a very fragile china shop, and who knows what the breakage will be?