Last evening, after watching "X Factor" (yeah, Melanie, you so deserved to win), I happened to play channel roulette and caught a piece of an Oprah's "Lifeclass" episode on OWN. The subject was "The Truth Will Set You Free," and the first guest was Ellen Degeneres, following the now-famous cover of Time magazine when she declared "Yep, I'm Gay." How many of us as gay men or lesbian women will forget that? What a victory for all of us. How brave was Ellen at the time?
1997 doesn't sound like all that long ago, but I was reminded of just how long ago it was, at least in terms of public attitudes toward gay people, when "Lifeclass" featured reactions Ellen received from some audience members, who were not at all impressed to know she was a lesbian. Of course, there were the usual intolerant Christians, sputtering off the usual religious judgements, making the normally cool Ellen look genuinely uncomfortable under the vitriol of their words.
But there was also a woman in the front row who took issue with the bold and unapologetic announcement of Ellen's sexual orientation--on the cover of Time magazine, no less, in unmistakable, large red letters. She was upset because she was challenged to address the questions her children asked when they saw the word gay and wondered what it meant. "What am I supposed to tell them?" she asked, or something to that effect.
I was stunned by this woman's lack of imagination (but, of course, this was 1997), in part because I couldn't believe she was as clueless as she made herself out to be. Did she really have no idea what to tell her children, or would she rather have not been put in the position of telling them anything at all about gay people? Did it never occur to her she could have said Ellen was a happy, lighthearted, and carefree person? Even better, couldn't she have said that Ellen loves women, and left it at that?
To Ellen's credit, she said to the woman she should have told her children what being gay is, implying to keep it age appropriate, of course. After all, what an opportunity the woman had to present gay people in a positive light and to leave her children with a positive attitude toward them. But, frankly, I can't help but think all the woman had on her mind was what happens between two gay people in the bedroom, when those of us in the know realize how much more there is to it than that.