Celebrity Coming Out: As Told by the Ellens

Coming out is a huge and often difficult part of the lives of any non-straight individual. However, coming out as a public figure takes those anxieties and subjects them to an entire nation of scrutiny. Our current idea of “coming out” is one that developed throughout a complicated LGBT history. October 11th, 1988 marks the first national coming out day, and really signals a switch in our popular discourse on gay and lesbians in society. Celebrities are generally praised for their courage in coming out in such a high profile manner, however it was not always this glamorous. In order to understand the progression of the celebrity coming out process, we will look at the experiences of two American comedians, Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Page.

Ellen DeGeneres starred in an ABC sitcom of the same name, Ellen, which ran from 1994-1998. Ellen’s on screen and off screen love life became a huge topic of conversation as rumors began to circulate around her sexual orientation. DeGeneres decided to tackle these reports head on by coming out in character during a monumental episode titled “The Puppy Episode” which aired April 30, 1997. Oprah Winfrey made an appearance as her psychiatrist, and the dialogue was as follows:

“It’s not like I’m looking for perfection,” DeGeneres’ character said. “I just want to find somebody special, somebody that I click with.”

“Has there ever been anyone you felt you clicked with?” Winfrey’s character asked. “What was his name?” 

“Susan,” she replied. Laughter and applause followed.

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Ellen and the show received extremely negative reactions shortly after this. The show was canceled the following season. Oprah received aggressive hate mail. Companies including JCPenney, Chrysler, and Wendy’s decided not to advertise during the show’s airtime. ABC put a parental warning on Ellen at the start of every episode.

Ellen’s incredibly bold and unprecedented public coming out shocked the nation in 1997. She was the first gay main character of a mainstream show and provided a totally new idea of queer celebrities. Fast forward to 2014 and we see Ellen Page following a modern approach to her high profile coming out. She chose to share her identity in a serious call-to-action speech that she did for HRFC’s Time to Thrive conference. The two coming out stories of these famous Ellens truly highlight the change through this short history on the expectations of coming out as a public figure. DeGeneres interviewed Page in celebration of Page’s coming out, while reflecting on the process of the whole thing. What is most interesting about the conversation, though, is the understanding that coming out is an unspoken duty of a celebrity, and that idea is something that has changed dramatically since DeGeneres’ 1997 announcement.

History has not always allowed for this high profile coming out. As we discussed Walt Whitman extensively in class, we never came to a conclusion on a proper identity, because Whitman literally did not have the vocabulary to come out himself. But even when his sexual identity was questioned in personal letters, Whitman denied the claims because it was unheard of at the time. When Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, DOMA was enacted a year prior and the public perception of LGBT individuals was less than positive. When Ellen Page came out in 2014, DOMA was struck down the year before and the expectation to represent the LGBT community in a public manner was, and continues to be, extremely important.

Laci Green: Sex+

Laci Green is a 25-year-old, self-labeled pansexual, Planned Parenthood advocate, certified rape violence counselor, writer for Discovery News, and sex educator. She was raised Mormon, but by early adolescents her relationship with the church turned turbulent as she questioned the religion’s strict gender roles. Green’s male friends became leaders in the group, while she was told that her place in the community was raising children. This experience prompted her to deviate from the church, graduate high school by the age of 15, and attend UC Berkley. Here she found her passion for all things sex; she even taught a four-credit class on female sexuality. But most importantly this is when she created her YouTube channel, Sex+.

Laci’s answer to the question, “What counts as sex?”

Laci calls Sex+ “a frank video series about sexuality”, and it is just that. The channel features videos about STD’s, videos about sex with disabilities, videos on S&M, and more. Each episode is shot with one camera and is an informative and non-judgmental look at a specific topic that always relates back to sex and sexuality. She is usually by herself, sometimes drinking a beer, talking to the audience in a very relaxed environment; however she often brings on special guests who might have a better first hand understanding of a certain subject.

What makes Green’s videos so groundbreaking though, is the all-inclusive nature of her blogs, and the totally non-heteronormative forum that she establishes. Laci herself strives to use gender-neutral language, and has always referred to her boyfriend of 4 years as her “partner”. Many outlets that talk about sex and sexuality create a base for straight sex, and might provide some sort of additional “queer” section that leads to a marginalization of the LGBT population. I would argue that none of the videos on Sex+ are inherently heterosexual, even the ones that focus on issues around losing your virginity, general tips for hooking up, and other broad issues that are usually framed to fit the straight world of dating. For example, she has no videos about, “what do women look for in men”, or other hetero-normative issues of the like.

While Laci’s videos are very inclusive, she does take about one in ten videos to focus on LGBT centered sex topics. She touches on almost every subject that you could think of: gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, asexual, pansexual, and others that might be considered alternative of the “normal” vaginal intercourse. Her language in these videos is extremely non-harming and aims to educate the viewers on things that they might be going through personally or are uniformed about. It is also significant that YouTube is the platform she uses to get her information across, because it is considered a very accessible and informative site that can reach anyone with the Internet.

I believe that Laci’s message to be taken from her videos at large is that exploring one’s sexuality through education and practice is the most effective way to find your sexual preference. Her values of non-conforming and non-binary labels really parallel Pat Califia’s ideals from, “Gay Men, Lesbians, and Sex: Doing It Together”. Califia writes, “I no longer believe that there is some ahistorical entity called homosexuality. Sexuality is socially constructed within the limits imposed by physiology, and it changes over time with the surrounding culture.” Green hopes to explain that labels are not important in defining who you are, who you sleep with, or how you sleep with them.

Portlandia

“Every time you point, I see a penis.”

This line from Portlandia’s genius sketch, Feminist Bookstore, is just one of the many outrageous exchanges between Toni and Candace, the two owners of “Women and Women First Bookstore” who happen to be the most extreme and comical illustrations of a feminist.

The Independent Film Channel’s Portlandia is a sketch comedy starring Carrie Brownstein and SNL’s Fred Armisen, who were also the creative minds behind the show. As assumed from the title, the show is filmed in Portland, Oregon and highlights many of the quirky landmarks around the city. Portlandia first aired on January 21st, 2011 and is going strong in its 5th season which is currently on air. There are several sketches that have consistent story lines from episode to episode, as well as some gems that only pop up once; but no matter the sketch, Fred and Carrie take the lead. This creates some very unique skits in which Fred and Carrie assume a somewhat unconventional character and or dress in drag.

Portland itself is a very notable location in queer culture. The city has adopted a fantastic stereotype of being the most alternative place in America, and is regarded as a safe space for any and all oddities. Natives have embraced the slogan “Keep Portland Weird,” which originally acted as a support to local businesses, however it has evolved into a mantra that encourages uniqueness and eccentric individuals. The city wholeheartedly falls under the category as a queer space.

It only makes sense that the show capitalizes on the alternative nature of Portland. Fred and Carrie, through the story they tell with their characters, truly bend the norm of our standard patriarchal society. One of the most extraordinary parts of the show is a sketch titled “Lance and Nina.” For starters, Fred and Carrie portray the role of a boyfriend and girlfriend, however Fred acts as Nina and Carrie as Lance. Besides being outrageously clever, this skit also highlights non-traditional relationships. Portlandia provides a really rare balance between bending the norms while still maintaining a realistic vibe that does not make the audience question the genuine nature of the sketch.

Portlandia uses stereotypes to its advantage in illustrating ridiculous customs. The theme of the “wedding” has made several appearances in the show, and essentially everything upper-middle class Americans know and love about weddings is thrown to the side. A clip titled “Gay Weddings” is the best example of Fred and Carrie ironically shutting down a heterosexual wedding for being too gay. This moment in the show ultimately poked fun at the bland standard for a “straight” wedding all in a hilarious one-minute video.

Portlandia is important in queer culture for many reasons already explained. But what makes the show stand out even more is that it aims to override many truths of our society through a light-hearted, comedic script. As Monique Wittig wrote in The Straight Mind, “(D)iscourses of heterosexuality oppress us in the sense that they prevent us from speaking unless we speak in their terms.” Portlandia uses a discourse that is fresh and does not seek to fit in any existing category.