Friday, December 23, 2011

What Do I Tell The Children?

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.


  1. I was 15 when Ellen came out. I watched the Oprah with Ellen from back then on Youtube a few nights ago and I know which woman you're talking about. The tone in her voice really got to me: there was an undercurrent of "I'm trying to protect my children from perverts like you".

    Back then, Ellen was jeopardizing her entire livelihood by doing this. Who would have imagined that she would be even more famous today (and on a long-running daytime talk show). She really changed the environment for the better.

  2. Ben, you've perfectly captured what angered me about what the woman in the audience said and the tone she said it in. Considering I don't think of myself as a pervert at all, I was deeply insulted and offended, which led to the writing of this post.

    I remember well when Ellen came out. It was all fun and games at first (with all the media attention), but, given what happened to her afterward--when her series was cancelled and we didn't hear from her for a while--I thought her career was over, and she'd disappear for good.

    Thankfully, Ellen's spirit won out, and, as you write, she's more loved and successful than ever. But I can't let this opportunity go by without saying that if Ellen were a man, I don't believe he would have fared as well. In general, I'd say lesbians are considered more acceptable than gay men. I'm just saying...

    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it.

  3. i remember her "coming out" very clearly as it finally brought me the courage to do so with my own parents (whose response, ironically, was "yeah, we know"). what strikes me now is how glowing and positive the Time magazine cover is! Bravo! that she is now happier, more successful, and more famous than before is a sweet victory for every gay man or lesbian who struggled to find the courage to say those words.

    i just discovered your blog. i only recently began a similar blog about me and my husband of 10 years. i look fwd to reading your posts and then brazenly stealing from them. ;-) feel free to call me out on it. (i could use the comments)

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