NOTE: Written 20 years ago, this was my first foray into “public theology”—actually written as an “audition” column when I applied to become a regular columnist for the Observer, the Notre Dame student newspaper. I wrote a bi-weekly column for the Observer in 1997-98, my last year in graduate year. Besides being immensely rewarding, the joy of this type of writing altogether reshaped my sense of vocation. Thanks, 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!