‘Ellen’ hype basis for greater dialogue

Ellen DeGeneres takes a bold step in television history tonight when her character comes out on the show “Ellen.” She took an even bolder personal step two weeks ago by coming out in Time magazine. “Yep, I’m Gay,” read the cover. The episode has become a big event and will be accompanied by celebrations across the country. At the University, the episode will be broadcast in the West Bank Union, marking the end of Pride Week, a diversity celebration sponsored by the Association of Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Student Organizations and Their Friends. Publicity surrounding the episode has certainly spurred public discussion about diverse lifestyles portrayed on television. But the real measure of progress won’t be seen until long after the hype has ended.
The coming-out episode has been pondered, joked and speculated about for months. The climax of anticipation seems like reason enough for celebration. And there is a genuine reason to acclaim the character of a woman with the courage to remain true to herself amid crippling public consequences. In order to present what she and many consider to be a more representative picture of American life, DeGeneres risks her livelihood as an entertainer. The actress may or may not see it this way, but there certainly are people who do. And many of them will be celebrating tonight.
Many people, of course, for various reasons, will not be celebrating or watching the show. But the issue is no more a battle between the left and right than it is about one television episode. The situation of gays and lesbians in this country is unique. That minority group encompasses as much diversity as the country embodies. To achieve some understanding in our society, of which gays and lesbians are a significant part, there must be real communication. The honesty of DeGeneres is commendable (while that of the show is yet to be seen). But our hope is that that honesty will expand into a broader public conversation that avoids the whirlwind of entertainment and hype.
At times, the conversation has adopted a tone of battle. The Rev. Jerry Falwell resorted to name calling, referring to DeGeneres as “Ellen Degenerate.” The American Family Association, meanwhile, threatened advertisers with boycotts. The Time cover, for its part, seems to suggest a certain victory in the struggle of gays and lesbians for recognition. The struggle, however, should really be toward heightened communication between people who disagree about lifestyle choices and their need for mutual respect.
This means creating an atmosphere in which heterosexuals and homosexuals can comfortably co-exist. Beth Zemsky, director of GLBT at the University, points out that one-third of adolescent suicide attempts are correlated with sexual orientation. Clearly, there is a need for more openness in our culture. A television show may provide a positive image or even jump-start a conversation, but in reality openness needs to be cultivated. The public has a responsibility to its citizens that transcends placating advertisers and making a splash during sweeps week. It takes more work than one television episode to improve communication.