This week marks the 16th anniversary of Ellen’s coming out. Two weeks later her character followed suit on prime-time TV. This column, written for that occasion, was my “audition” column for The Observer, the Notre Dame student newspaper. It won me a regular column where, during my last year of graduate school I got to practice writing “public theology” every two weeks. Because this column was written only for my application, it never appeared in print until a decade later when it was included in my book. So, today, an encore column to honor Ellen …
“The outing of Ellen: why all the fuss?”
David R. Weiss
April 30, 1997
Just a few hours from now the seismic culture counters will go haywire as the first lead character in a prime-time TV series comes out of the closet in homes all across America. Needless to say, there’s been a bit of a fuss made over this. Some folks plan to boycott the show, the advertisers, even the station; at least one ABC affiliate has declined to air the episode. Many who have welcomed Ellen into their living room quite readily over the past few years will now feel compelled to turn off this woman whose no longer hidden life so turns them off. Others hail this episode as a liberating event, and not just for gays and lesbians. There are plans to celebrate with “Ellen” parties, champagne toasts, and doubtless much more.
I must confess I’m not an Ellen devotee. I have seen an episode or two, but I was never captivated by the subtle charm of the show; and, judging from its relatively mediocre ratings, neither have many others. So, why all the fuss? Is there really something so significant in a somewhat nerdy, somewhat funny, but all in all rather ordinary woman declaring herself lesbian on national TV? I say, yes, precisely because of that last sentence.
Most of us, myself included, have been raised with rather demonized notions of homosexuals. Perverts, queers, effeminate, butch, dyke, intrinsically disordered–and a host of other appellations that would be starred out in this newspaper. They’re the sort of folks that send shivers up your spine and make your stomach feel queasy. Like the recent photo in the South Bend Tribune of a cow with two faces emerging side by side from the same head. Homosexuals are NOT normal.
Please let us believe that.
If you want to put a lesbian on prime-time TV, at least make her butch, put her on a bike (preferably a Harley), and dress her in leather and chains. But don’t suggest that being lesbian (or gay) is so . . . almost boringly normal. I mean, Ellen, aside from whatever she does between the sheets (or in her own imagination) seems just too much like me to write off as “intrinsically disordered” or “unnatural.” Her days, her life, are filled with all the same foibles that mark my own. The jams she gets herself into are not all that different from the corners I’ve painted myself into from time to time. And the simple fact that most viewers have seemed not to notice her (until now) is also a bit like my own experience in the world.
So maybe, just maybe, the fuss over Ellen’s outing is driven less by the fact that she’s lesbian than by the concern that she isn’t “lesbian” enough to reinforce our own stereotypes of how different and revolting lesbians ought to appear. Maybe there’s something in Ellen’s ordinariness that calls into question—and at a level hard to defend against—the familiar labels that have always worked to keep homosexuals in their place in our minds.
I may or may not watch Ellen tonight. I imagine I’ll jump on the cultural bandwagon—although I’ll watch it on tape after bedtime stories with my son are over (not that he wouldn’t be allowed to watch it himself, but right now he’s far more taken with the adventures of our current bedtime tale, “Maniac Magee,” than Ellen). But I don’t expect any big surprises myself. Homosexuals became human for me sometime ago. Maybe it was Dale’s wry humor; or Dick’s ability to imitate Kermit the Frog (or his inability to laugh in any other way than like a Canadian goose); or Kathi’s uncommon passion for poetry and literature; or Ken’s inability to leave the soap bar somewhere so that the shower spray didn’t melt it away. In any case, I’ve had too many gay and lesbian friends who have been at once so uniquely and ordinarily human that my capacity to consider their sex lives “intrinsically disordered” withered a long time back.
Sure, some folks will respond by saying that I’m confusing apples with oranges, sinners with sins. That you can’t argue from the ordinariness of the rest of their lives to justify their sexual desires and actions. Fair enough. But, at the very least, that ordinariness humanizes them. It suggests that they deserve neither our demonized fears nor our patronizing pity: they deserve our company, our respect, and our ears to hear from them who they are. That’s a conversation yet to happen on much of this campus and throughout much of this country. If a somewhat nerdy, somewhat funny, lead character on a prime time TV show nudges us in that direction, well, then I’ll tune in for that. The Spirit blows where the Spirit wills; Ellen wouldn’t be the first woman of questionable cultural standing to become part of God’s divine whimsy. And I don’t imagine she’ll be the last. Happy viewing!
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”
It’s neat reading a post from the past. My experience of reading stuff I’ve written a while back is that it is almost as if another writer were penning the words. My take on the stuff you have written is that I’m hearing David’s voice, but, somehow, it feels different. Your choice to use the word “normal” seems anachronistic and, indeed, it is exactly that. We have come so far. Ellen’s outing was a drop in a quiet pond whose ripples are moving quickly toward the shore.
Had I read this piece in ’97 I would have disagreed with your assessment. I was in my second year of seminary and still struggled with the question whether being gay was “normal” or if it was a sin. Whatever the answer, I was sure that I was right. Shortly after that, a good friend came out to me and I had to revisit prejudices I didn’t even know were there. Now, I am co-writing a memoir of another gay friend of mine. I passionately defend a person’s inborn sexuality as a staunch ally to the good cause.
Obviously, that cause requires persistence since all do not yet have full marriage equality in our country. But if the David Weiss and the Daniel Maurer of today could enter a time machine together returning to meet our 1997 selves, I venture to guess that both our past selves would be equally astonished at how far we have come personally and how far society has changed. Thanks for the opportunity to look into the past.
I agree, Dan, I can see the arc from my past words to my present witness, but I would choose different words and images today. It’s humbling to read words that are from so many yesterdays ago, less polished and sure than my voice is today, but good to recall how deep my roots now run. And, yes, quite surprising how much has followed Ellen out the closet door!