The White House dinner in honor of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Sept. 17 was a high-spirited affair, with a 700-strong guest list that included the likes of Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase and Christie Brinkley. But at one point, Melissa Etheridge and her partner, Julie Cypher, were the undisputed life of the party. "They danced a lot, then Cypher and Etheridge led a conga line around the East Room," reports one guest. "They seemed like the best of friends."

Now it appears they are indeed just friends. On Sept. 19 the couple who introduced gay motherhood to mainstream America announced, in a written statement, their decision to separate "with the utmost love and respect for one another." The split comes just nine months after Etheridge, 39, and Cypher, 36, revealed that rocker David Crosby, 59, had fathered their two children, Bailey, 3, and 23-month-old Beckett—and, as many will no doubt observe, just four weeks after the breakup of their friends comedian Ellen DeGeneres and actress Anne Heche. "I know it's weird—it's a right-wing field day," says actress Kathy Najimy, a close pal of Etheridge's and Cypher's. "It's not representative of what happens to gay couples. Their decision wasn't a quick one."

Nor was it taken lightly. Etheridge and Cypher have emphasized that their priority now is "what is in the best interest of our children." To that end, the pair bought two homes, next door to one another and sharing a backyard, not far from the antiques-filled Tudor-style L.A. mansion where they have been living. "The kids will be with their mommies seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Najimy, who is married to actor Dan Finnerty and whose daughter Samia, 3, is best friends with Bailey. "They'll be able to have breakfast with Momo [their name for Cypher], play in the mutual yard and lunch with Mama [Etheridge]."

By all accounts, the children are as well-adjusted as any toddlers. On the set of Beyond Chance, the Life-time series about real-life twists of fate, which Etheridge has hosted for the past two seasons, "They were equally affectionate with both Melissa and Julie," says producer Richard Schmidt. "They're very secure. The four of them would spend breaks together, and it was just a warm family feeling." Still is, says Najimy. "When you hear that a breakup is amicable, they don't often really mean it," she says. "But I know them both very, very well and it's actually really amicable."

The two met in 1988, when Cypher, then 24 and married to actor Lou Diamond Phillips, was working as an assistant director on the video for Etheridge's hit "Bring Me Some Water." Etheridge was immediately attracted, she has said, but Cypher wasn't so sure. "I was drawn to her," she told PEOPLE in 1994, "but it never occurred to me that I could be a lesbian." Nor had it occurred to Phillips, from whom she split to be with Etheridge in 1990. (Phillips was divorced from Cypher in 1992 and married model Kelly Preston in 1994.)

Etheridge, whose sexual orientation was no secret among family and friends, came out publicly at a gay inaugural ball for Bill Clinton in 1993. Public scrutiny of the couple intensified when Cypher bore two children by artificial insemination and when, after years of secrecy, the couple announced last January that Crosby was the sperm donor. "I didn't want the power of that secret hanging over my children's heads," Etheridge later told Redbook.

By July the singer, who has often laughingly referred to her ultracasual self and the more orderly Cypher as "the odd couple," was showing signs of strain. "This isn't the happily ever after," she told TV interviewer Charlie Rose. "It's day-to-day commitment and work and communication, and it's hard." Could there be a reconciliation? Najimy seems hopeful. "They really do love each other dearly," she says. "It's a separation. It's not forever."

Anne-Marie O'Neill
Meg Grant and N.F. Mendoza in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Meg Grant,
  • N.F. Mendoza.