Monday, September 19, 2005
by Wayne Besen
Ellen DeGeneres strode up to the stage as this year's Emmy host with the Herculean task of brightening the nation's somber mood following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
"New Orleans is my hometown, and I have family in Mississippi," Ellen said, striking the right note at the awards ceremony. "It's times like this we really, really need laughter."
Ellen could just have easily been talking about her career, which was derailed by the storm of controversy that followed her very public coming out in 1997. In the oddly named "Puppy Episode" of her hit sitcom Ellen, the actress announced to an enormous audience of forty-two million viewers that she is a lesbian. This monumental eruption of honesty introduced a lesbian to one out of every six Americans.
The positive impact her coming out had on the lives of gay people cannot be overstated. However, it came with a huge personal price for Ellen. Even fans questioned the affect the comedian's forthrightness would have on her future.
"Ellen should be concerned about her career," a supporter told E-Online following the episode. "Where will she go from here?"
Indeed, the storm came, the levees broke and it seemed like Ellen was washed up on the rocky shores of the Isle of Has Been, located three knots west of the center seat on Hollywood Squares. Ellen quickly fell from her perch as Hollywood's darling and was virtually banished overnight from the entertainment world.
Meanwhile, she also had to deal with the public meltdown of her voluptuous blond girlfriend, Anne Heche, who claimed that she was an alien named Celestia, and then left Ellen for a man. Adding to the tumult, was a right wing smear machine led by Rev. Jerry Falwell who derisively referred to her as "Ellen Degenerate".
We can only wonder what was going through Ellen's head during this bleak period in her life. The self-doubt and pain she must have endured in her lonesome walk through the desert surely would have crushed a lesser person.
But, Ellen didn't fold.
She coped with her personal tribulations the same way she deftly handled the unenviable task of hosting the Emmy's following both 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina.
"It's times like this we really, really need laughter."
Ellen kept cracking hysterically funny jokes with her gift of suburb, quirky timing. Eventually, Hollywood honchos could not help but burst out in uproarious laughter. It didn't matter if Ellen were gay, straight or even an alien, like her ex gal pal. She was simply funny and her talent could no longer be denied.
The perseverance of DeGeneres paid off. She provided the wildly popular voiceover for "Dory" the fish, in the 2003 animated film Finding Nemo. In September 2003, she launched The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which was nominated for eleven Daytime Emmy Awards in its inaugural season, winning four, including Best Talk Show.
There are literally tens of thousands of gay and lesbian actors and actresses who have rolled into Hollywood with dreams of fame and fortune. Yet, only one of these individuals, Ellen, had the courage to come out at the height of her success. To the GLBT Community, she is a one in a million shining star.
Without Ellen's bold step into the unknown, there would likely be no Will & Grace or gay characters sprinkled throughout network and cable television. Rosie O'Donnell, would probably still be rhapsodizing about a dream date with Tom Cruise. The new gay MTV cable network, Logo, would likely have never made it past the drawing board.
After coming out, Ellen continued to shatter barriers. Who will ever forget her tension-breaking joke while hosting the Emmy's in 2001: "We're told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?"
What amazes me about Ellen is that she has developed a huge following among housewives in mainstream America, while unapologetically remaining true to her lesbian sensibilities. What other female entertainer, for example, would host the Emmys in a black tuxedo?
From a guest appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to the cover of The New York Times TV Guide, it seems Ellen is more ubiquitous than ever. This is not just a personal triumph for Ellen, but a larger victory for the entire GLBT Community.
Surely, this is the way Ellen wanted it when she jumped off the cliff in 1997. After all, she was already rich and famous when she graced the cover of Time Magazine under the blaring headline, "Yep, I'm Gay." This was always about us, and making our lives better.
It was fitting that Ellen left Hollywood, returning home to Louisiana to help with the relief effort. She is the rare superstar who has reached the pinnacle of success, yet has never forgotten who she is or where she came from. Ellen DeGeneres is a living legend and a true American hero.
Ah, Wayne...you have once again evoked a response from me that I can't resist sharing. I think it is wonderful that you believe Ellen is a true American hero. There was a time when I felt the same way.
I followed Ellen's career and was glad that she has had an easier road than Robin Tyler and Kate Clinton, the pioneers who paved the path for her.
I was glad when she came out publicly and felt it showed a great deal of courage and strength. I admired her committment to be true to herself.
My heart went out to her with the messy breakup with Ann. I think many of us who have traversed this planet for more than a couple of decades can identify with how mortifying that must have been.
I rejoiced when she got her daytime talk show and became such a great success in that venue.
She's my sister. I wish her nothing but the best in everything.
Then, it happened. I was watching Larry King interview Ellen one night and heard a remark that I was so sure I misheard that I watched the interview again later when it repeated on late night.
I cannot recall the exact question Larry posed, but I will never forget Ellen's answer. She was trying to say that although she is a lesbian, she is just like everybody else. That she has the same feelings, hopes, dreams, and desires. That was all well and good.
Then came the comment,"I'm a really good person. I really am. I mean, I'm not an activist or anything."
I felt as if someone had shoved a knife in my stomach. The betrayal was truly stunning.
I have worked many years for Ms. Degeneres to have the right to be anything she chooses. I have fought for women's rights and lesbian rights for the last 27 years.
I guess I'm *not* a good person. I *am* an activist, and I will fight for full civil rights for LGBT people until I draw my last breath.
If that makes me a bad person in Ms. Degeneres' eyes, so be it.
See you in Chicago!
posted by , at
Lighten up man.
posted by , at
Ellen has shown courage, and I appreciate that.
However, it is easy when one lives on a celebrity pinnacle to forget the battle going on as rightwingnut fanatics try to demonize gay folk.
Ellen could use her selection of guests to become an "activist." I'll bet that Wayne Besen guy would love to appear with Ellen.
It is always time for promminent LGBT people to speak out for full equality for all of us.
posted by Bob Schwartz, at
I personally feel that we are all activists just by choosing to live openly and be role models to those around us. Most of us may not realize, Ellen included, just how powerful simply existing as a gay person can be, and how influential we are to some. We may not be making waves on the political front, but we are changing opinions and opening minds, which in time will hopefully have the same result at the polls
Ellen may not think of herself as an activist, but she is certainly fighting for the cause by choosing to be openly gay.
posted by , at
I find it ironic that the first poster was so thrilled with everything Ellen has said and done, yet one comment flips him or her off. All that good wiped away with one statement.
I belive the poster misinterpreted Ellen's words. It sounded like she was asking to be labeled as a regular caring individual and not the leader of the movement as some might want to make her out to be. It did not sound like she was putting activists down in any way.
And since Wayne was so eloquent in his column about Ellen's living her life as an out and proud lesbian, funny how the poster hides behind the Anonymous tag.
Congrats to Ellen and her well deserved success! Congrats to every person who lives their life outside the closet and in the sunshine. And a very sincere thank you to the poster for his/her 27 years of work. We're all in this together!
posted by Michael Murphy, at
As far as I'm concerned, having the courage to live an honest life and spreading laughter to millions of people is infinitely more positive and influencial than a bunch of activists whining about politics 24/7. Ellen is changing society the only way that it CAN be changed - by setting an example, which causes people to question their values and assumptions. Any activist can lobby for changes in our nation's laws (and their cries most often fall on deaf ears), but when little gay girls and boys grow up and dream of greatness they'll look to people like Ellen for inspiration.
posted by Ryan Grant Long, at
Does she have to be an activist? No
It's her life, let her live it her way! She is a beautiful SOUL!!! that cares, and I applaud her for it. Cheryl from Utah
posted by , at
I have always admired Elen for her stamina and caring of all people. Yes, she is a true American Heroe to a lot of people. She is an activist in her own way, a way that showing the world the way the gay comunity is and can be. This in itself can change a lot of things for the gay world. Thanks for a very good write up on Elen , Wayne take care sir.
posted by Mike, at
Not really an Ellen fan. Think her coming out on TV was more publicity stunt and high episodic ratings than anything of substance, everyone already knew about her. Enjoyed her in Nemo of course, but her talk show is way too fluffy for me. Too many talk shows out there actually, and hers is one of them. Your article was okay, you are obviously very passionnate about your subject matter. I don't see her as a hero, but she appears to be a pleasant and daring individual, which I can respect.
posted by , at
To the Person who wrote the following:
"Then came the comment,"
"I'm a really good person. I really am. I mean, I'm not an activist or anything."
Sheeeeesh, with out even seeing the interview, I can see the quirky look on her face. I love Ellen, and that comment you seem to think offensive, I don't! I guess you don't/didn't really see the humor in Ellen after all..
posted by , at
You are a loser and not worthy of a blog. You edit out the comments that don't agree with you and your pointed little head. Good luck fooling the masses with your little ego trip. A friend sent me here and I will be quick to point this out to him. I am a journalist who posted comments in this blog last week and you removed them. You're a fraud, and I hope enough people see this before you remove it.
posted by , at
My deepest apologies for the last flaming post. I missed seeing my post after checking for it three times, but it is actually there and was not removed. I spoke out of line and offense. Good luck with your endeavors. I need a nap.
posted by , at
I am a huge Ellen fan, and I think that her courage has made it easier for all of us, regardles of weather she wants to be an activist or not. To Ryan Grant Long, I am the little gay girl. I am 13, and I just came out. Even if we don't want go be activists, we are all representatives of the LGBT community, which is sad. I feel like I have to be the steriotype, which really bothers me.I just want to be me, and who cares if I like girls. A big thank you to Wayne, I love your columns.
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