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.
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.