Though one person’s coming out story certainly doesn’t convey the history of the LGBT rights movement, it is through telling these accounts that the community makes its own history. This is Kelly McGillis’ story.
Despite two failed marriages, a years-long battle with substance abuse and a retreat from the career that once earned her a Golden Globe nomination, Kelly McGillis doesn’t shy away from her past.
“I don’t think I’m any more dysfunctional or crazy than anybody else is. I’m just more willing to talk about it,” said the 53-year-old out actor.
McGillis, star of such films as “Top Gun,” “Witness” and “The Accused,” said she’s still getting used to the relatively quiet life she and partner Melanie Leis share in Collingswood, N.J. — a vast departure from the years of struggles she endured.
A native of Thousand Oaks, Calif., McGillis was a self-described tomboy as a kid. The oldest of three girls, she was close with her father, a physician, frequently going sailing with him and accompanying him on his house calls.
When she hit her teenage years, however, McGillis said her relationship with her parents began to unravel.
“I was an incredibly rebellious teenager,” she said. “I thought I should be 18 and have all the privileges of 18 when I was 13. I was just out of control.”
McGillis’ behavior became too much for her parents and, when she was 17, they kicked her out of the house — which, in retrospect, was “the best thing they could have ever done for me.”
McGillis enrolled in the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts in Santa Maria and later transferred to Juilliard.
Before heading east, McGillis married, although not for the usual reasons.
“I really wanted my parents to love me,” she said. “They chucked me out of the house at 17 and said, ‘We don’t want to see you anymore,’ so I thought that to win their approval back, [getting married] was the right thing to do.”
Once she was accepted to Juilliard, however, she knew the marriage couldn’t survive the school’s demanding schedule.
The split was amicable, and McGillis said her time in New York opened her eyes to her own sexuality, which she had struggled with for years.
“I was very attracted to girls in high school, and that horrified me because I just knew that wasn’t right. That’s what I told myself,” she said. “Mind you, my family never ever talked about sex — not sex, not even menstruation — they were all taboo subjects that you just didn’t talk about. So it was a very, very scary and confusing time for me.”
McGillis began dating a woman and the two moved into an apartment together; however, their relationship crumbled after they were sexually assaulted together by a home intruder.
“I never got over that,” she said. “When you’re the victim of a violent crime like that, I think it’s normal to think, What did I do to deserve this? And the story that I came up with that I could cope with was that I was being punished because I liked girls, because I’m gay.”
McGillis went on to date several men before she decided she wanted the stability and safety of a husband and children, and married her second husband, Fred Tillman.
“I met Fred, and I thought, Fred will protect me. Nobody will ever hurt me again. And that only worked for so long because the fact is that I wasn’t being true to who I was and what I am. You can only live a lie for so long without absolutely destroying yourself. And that’s what I did.”
McGillis had two daughters with Tillman, but continued to spiral downward into drug and alcohol dependence, what she called a “coping mechanism for all the shit I created in my life.”
Her addictions became so consuming that she eventually stepped out of the film industry and went into rehab.
Tillman was awarded custody of their children, which she now says was deserved, and after she emerged from rehab, McGillis began the long process of piecing her life back together.
“When I got out, I had nowhere to go, and I found myself at a halfway house in Mohnton, Pa., and I thought, OK, I’m just going to stay here and learn how to not drink and not do drugs. I’ve never scored drugs here, and I don’t know anybody who does drugs here. So this is where I’m going to stay and learn how to get sober.”
After nine months in the small town near Reading, McGillis was reunited with her children and worked to rebuild the relationships that had deteriorated, a process that put her film career on hold.
“That’s one of the main reasons I didn’t work,” she said. “I had an agent who kept calling, and we finally got in an argument, and I had to tell him, ‘You don’t seem to understand. I have to do this for my children and for myself. I have to be the best parent I know how to be.’ And that’s what I did.”
McGillis and her daughters lived in Pennsylvania from 2001-08, and although the girls accepted her relationship with Leis, a former employee of a restaurant she and Tillman owned, she said she initially didn’t address the issue with them.
“I did what my parents did and just didn’t talk about it, didn’t talk about the elephant in the room. I had so much shame,” she said. “For the longest time, when Mel and I would be out, I said, ‘You can’t possibly touch me in public. You just can’t do that.’ It embarrassed me.”
McGillis said her sobriety, however, eventually empowered her to accept her own sexuality and share her life with her children.
While she didn’t fully embrace her own identity until she was in her 40s, she said she doesn’t think self-acceptance should be subject to a timeline.
“I don’t think I’m unusual because this is what I believe with my heart and soul: Sexuality is a complicated, complicated issue. And you add to that the family dynamic, the societal dynamic and your personal dynamic of who you are, it’s a friggin’ messy situation. I don’t know anybody who it’s been easy for, gay or straight. Let’s face it: We human beings are a mess. We all try to look so neat and clean, but the truth is, we’re all just messy. And that’s OK.”
For years, McGillis kept her personal life out of the spotlight to shield her children, but last year, once the kids moved out, she decided to be truthful with a reporter who asked her about her orientation during an interview.
While she was taken aback by the amount of attention her public “coming out” received, she never read any of the reactions.
“Everybody’s got an opinion about something, and I don’t live my life based on popular opinion. I did that for a long time, and it didn’t serve me well. It made me incredibly insecure and neurotic, and I lost all sense of who I am,” she said.
McGillis and Leis were the subject of a New York Times story last month — and countless other news and blog articles — when the couple entered into a civil union.
She said she and Leis, who’ve been together about 10 years, had considered tying the knot in the past, but weren’t ready until recently.
“I was always gun-shy. I thought, Oh my God, I’ve had two unsuccessful marriages, what am I doing? I don’t want to be like, I don’t know who, Zsa Zsa Gabor, someone who’s gotten married 100 times. And we had problems because we had drank together, we did drugs together and then we got clean together and it was crazy. We needed to grow up and learn how to have an adult relationship. I missed the boat on healthy relationships, so I’m still working on it. But the truth is we’re at a good place now. I love Mel, and I want to spend the rest of my life with her.”
McGillis plans to remain in New Jersey, where she’s lived for about two years, and said she’s exploring options like re-entering the seminary (a venture she undertook briefly but had to quit unexpectedly), or working with women with addictions, although she wouldn’t rule out a return to acting.
“I don’t know if anybody will really hire me, because the bottom line is I’m no longer willing to sacrifice who I am for what I do. I did that for a long, long time. I had a boob job because I thought that’s what I should do. But since I got sober, I thought, This is such a friggin’ lie. Every time someone said, ‘You have nice boobs,’ I’d be like, Oh my God, this is a lie, they’re not mine. So I had them taken out. But I did that stuff, and I’m not willing to anymore. If nobody hires me, that’s OK. I have a lot of other things in my life that I’m interested in doing, and I just don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up. I pray about it every day. It’s scary, I must say, but I have great faith that it’ll all be OK and something will work out.” : :
— Jen Colleta is a staff writer for Philadelphia Gay News. This piece was published as part of their LGBT History Month series. Learn more at epgn.com.