Ellen — two steps forward and one step back

by Mark

ep, I’m gay!” Ellen DeGeneres says on the cover of Time magazine. On April 30, on campus, in the Twin Cities and all over the country, parties are planned to celebrate that her character, Ellen Morgan, will have finally said the words. None other than Oprah will portray Ellen’s therapist in the one-hour special coming-out episode, which airs during sweeps week. Laura Dern, k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge will also appear. A public relations firm has coordinated Ellen’s coming out from the beginning. The New York Times reports that the first gay lead in a sitcom is inspiring people everywhere to follow her example and come out.
When I recall tortured, closeted people I’ve met on dance floors, in online chat rooms and on campus, I cannot help but applaud Ellen. When I think of students I’ve met who led gay youth groups at age 16 — here in Minnesota! — I wonder why it took so long for an Ellen to emerge. When I go to a drag show, my reactions are many. I applaud the gender-bending performers, but I can’t help observing that an openly gay man can’t get a spotlight unless he’s pretending to be a glamorous woman. Moves like Ellen’s may help change that.
I applaud Ellen, but I wonder how she will manage her identity after April 30. For most of us, coming out is a process that is not resolved in a one-hour special. Oprah and public relations firms are not there to smooth the way. There are still parents who refuse to hear the words, “I’m gay,” even when spoken. This I know.
There are still parents who disown their daughters and sons. And several well-publicized gay civil rights issues await resolution.
Ellen could not marry another woman in any state, yet. Her boss at the bookstore could fire her, legally, in most states. She might be prosecuted in some states, if she ever gets laid. And she could be kicked out of the military. Coming out, an inherently political move, makes unlikely activists of many of us, even if we wish to be left alone. One hopes that Ellen neither glosses the complications nor becomes a didactic victim.
Even as we celebrate Ellen’s coming out, some of us might miss the old Ellen — the Ellen who was forever keeping us guessing about her sexuality. Not all of us experience our sexual identities as either straight or gay, or as constant throughout our lives. Some of us see our sexuality as defying our own classifications, let alone others’, and see the available categories as sometimes confining — oppression. Why, indeed, do we seem to need to peg everyone as either gay or straight — so much that we often refuse to believe that they might be bisexual?
Not only do some of us resent being categorized, but we resent the content associated with the available identities. I could never advocate the closet. I was not happy there, and I’ve seen the violence it can do. But there are days when I resent the gay identity I’ve embraced. Even when I lived in San Francisco, where one might expect the most diversity of gay identity, it got a little claustrophobic. If you’re a man, and you’re coming out with Ellen, you better look young. You better go to the gym. You better like to party. You better espouse a narrow range of political beliefs, including the belief that gay identity is not chosen, but entirely biological — not that your individual experience can support such a generalization. (Does it follow that gay men’s renowned love of Abba is similarly hard-wired? Oops, I didn’t get that gene.) And if you’re going to stay in Minneapolis, you better learn to talk chastity, even if you’re promiscuous. Gay male identity here exists in the virgin and slut stereotypes you thought were reserved for high school girls.
I’ve been told that lesbian identity can be similarly confining. Whatever identity Ellen assumes, she will put off some who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, straight. I certainly hope that more than Ellen’s consumer profile changes after April 30, but even that will be controversial.
If she remains the “Gap-wearing, latte-sipping” goofball that the New York Times describes, it may appear that lesbian identity has no content independent of any other standard bourgeois identities. If she shaves her head or starts wearing flannel shirts and Birkenstocks –unlikely — she will be accused of perpetuating lesbian stereotypes.
As Ellen comes out as lesbian, she will most likely reinforce our tendency toward confining ourselves to monolithic, essentialist categories. And she will, most likely, either reinforce tired lesbian stereotypes or make it seem that lesbian identity is no identity at all.
But in my calculation, she almost inevitably moves us forward more than she moves us backward. So go to one of her coming out parties. Raise a glass. Proclaim your sexual identities, if you wish. However many you have. Or keep them guessing.
Mark Cenite is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.