On April 30th, Ellen DeGeneres joins the rest of us by coming out to her TV family. I say "joins the rest of us" because coming out is probably one of the few "universals" that all gay people experience. In Ellen's case, she does so before millions of television viewers and surrounded by public controversy. But I doubt if our own comings out were any less stressful or earth-moving than Ellen's will be. What brings us all to that moment of self-affirmation and how does it change our lives?
Some of us get lucky and coming out seems just a normal part of growing up. We might have understanding parents or a relative who is gay and who has broken ground ahead of us. Others of us no doubt go through hell and high water to accomplish the telling of the truth about ourselves. Many of us suffer consequences and ostracism from our families or friends. Some of us choose to come out selectively-sometimes we're in the closet, sometimes we're out. It all depends on who we are dealing with and how friendly the environment might be.
And we all have our coming out stories; oftentimes it is the ice-breaker when we meet a new friend. We share coming out stories like a common history. The stories are all different but the event occurred in some fashion for all of us.
Ask yourself how many of your friends' coming out stories you have heard? I'll bet you know all of the stories of your best friends and most of the stories of your occasional friends and even many of the stories of mere acquaintances. Sharing coming out stories is like sharing a fabulous meal...very satisfying, delicious, second-helpings available. And the thing about coming out is that it is never really over. We do it again and again throughout our lifetimes...another experience unique to gay people. Heterosexuals certainly don't have to keep declaring their sexuality. But it is, perhaps, the repetition and reaffirmation of ourselves that helps develop the strong sense of belonging to a community.
In the case of Ellen DeGeneres' coming out, that community has been assaulted by Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority (I'd like to see the numbers that prove they are the majority, but that's another issue. There's a great bumper sticker that reads The Moral Majority is neither). Some sponsors have pulled off the show because of pressure from such groups. Well, I wonder if we couldn't apply some pressure of our own. After all, most of us drive cars and we all buy shampoo and baby powder and floor wax-you know, the human condition of everyday living. AND we can all write letters of protest, unless we are simply too tired to keep up the fight. So let's take turns. If your last name starts with the letters A-J, write to General Motors; K thru S, write to Chrysler Corporation; T thru Z, write to Johnson and Johnson. (I wonder who makes K-Y Jelly?)
I know that you'll all be tuned into Ellen on April 30. We're having a big Coming Out Party at Rubyfruit that night to celebrate, so come on over and share Ellen's coming out. Coming out with friends is always easier and we need to tweak that Nielson rating computer to show our strength. We can all retell our own coming out stories again ...you know, make it a big celebration of our selves.
I once had the occasion of coming out publicly in a large group of people. I was attending graduate school at Wake Forest University and during a Women's Studies discussion group, I started a sentence with as a lesbian. I know the ground trembled and the lightning flashed. Every eye in the room turned toward me: some friendly, some curious, some hostile. It wasn't that long ago: 1988...and they (the powers that were) took away my funding.
Sometimes we find allies in strange places, however. One of my elderly professors who was nearing retirement after a long and illustrious career came to my rescue. He was the quintessential Mr. Chips...white hair, strange little hats, stooped walk. He had raised four daughters and he loved literature. We had read Virginia Woolf together in his office and he had marveled at my interpretations. In 40 years as a professor, he had never noted the lesbian love stories in Woolf's works. And to me, they were so obvious.
I went to Dr. Potter and sadly told him that I would not be able to continue my work during the next semester. I explained why...yet another coming out. He listened; he was outraged; he promised his help. Here was this eminent professor going out on a limb for a student. And he did some mighty limb-walking.
He fought publicly and privately for my rights as a student. He spoke eloquently on my behalf before the faulty and the dean. He answered letters sent to the department from "friends of the University." He never once wavered and he got my funding reinstated.
The last time I saw him, he was driving away from campus in his old dilapidated jalopy, his crazy hat sitting at a jaunty angle. He waved to me as he drove over the hill. I would never forget him.
This is why my column is called "Out On A Limb." With each coming out, with each self-affirming action we are joined on that limb by others who love us. We do not sit upon that limb alone. And if one looks around, one will notice that all the limbs are well-populated with other risk-takers and other brave souls who insist on living their lives freely and with dignity.
I can only hope that the writers of the Ellen DeGeneres show will allow her to do the same in this coming out episode. She too is going out on a limb. Her career hangs in the balance, but her self-affirmation brings her strength.
We'll all be watching, Ellen. We're out on that limb with you and we will not let you fall.