Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Pride Month: Remembering Ellen Degeneres' Coming Out on National T.V. Twenty Years Ago

Pride month is a good time to point you to the commemoration Ellen Degeneres did on 28 April of her historic coming-out episode twenty years ago. It's on my mind today because I save episodes of Ellen's show to watch as I slog on my treadmill daily, and have just gotten to that episode in my queue of saved shows. Steve and I just finished watching it.

So many thoughts: can it be only twenty years ago that all of this happened? So much has shifted in those twenty years (and so much remains to be shifted). 1997: Steve and I had just returned to Arkansas to move my mother back home, so she could spend the final years of her life close to her remaining siblings, though she had by that time more or less lost any sense of who the people around her were.

We had come back here, our careers as Catholic theologians shattered, definitively ended in North Carolina in the early 1990s, just as we had assumed the responsibility of caring for my mother as her dementia became critically apparent and it became obvious that she could not live by herself any longer. We had just returned to Arkansas not knowing, really, how we'd make ends meet, what kinds of jobs we could find, how we'd be able to juggle the responsibilty of caring for a parent reaching the end of her life journey and at the same time, work and feed ourselves and her, pay house payments, obtain health insurance (I ended up just living without any healthcare coverage for years, in fact).

Lots of questions. All of them centered around the fact that we were a gay couple refusing to hide this or apologize for it, though we had made no public statements about this and were playing the game required of gay people working in Catholic institutions at this period (and, let's be honest, still, in most Catholic institutions) — the game of total silence. Lots of insecurity about the future, about a livelihood, about healthcare coverage, with which the Benedictine monks of Belmont Abbey who definitively broke our theological careers while never providing a reason for doing so never have to cope.

So that we stopped altogether going to church, participating in the liturgy, after what they did to us. I could not stomach seeing the people who had shattered our careers — our lives — while they themselves lived in total security stand at the altar and preach to us about Jesus and his love and how all are invited to the table of the Lord.

Then Ellen's show: a cultural breakthrough that made an amazing difference to many LGBTQ Americans like Steve and me, people living on the margins, dealing with serious issues of discrimination, hiding, trying to hang onto jobs by saying nothing about who we were and whom we loved. A word that recurs in these commemorative episodes discussing Ellen's coming out is "courage."

Ellen adds to that word statements about how it was of supreme importance to her to be true to who she was, to live her "one wild and precious life" (to quote the contemporary lesbian American poet Mary Oliver). She was courageous because she had no choice, if she wanted to be true to what was inside her. 

As she, Oprah Winfrey, and Laura Dern all say in some of the following clips, when Ellen dared to come out — only twenty years ago! in 1997! — the blowback was fierce. Death threats. Vile racial slurs called in to Oprah. Serious problems finding work for both Ellen and Laura Dern. Ellen had people shout insults and threats at her from passing cars as she walked down the street, something that has happened to Steve and me repeatedly in various places in the world. When we're only walking and minding our business.

Only twenty years ago! In 1997!

A lot has changed. Very much still needs to change. People are given only one wild and precious life to live, and they have the right to live that life in peace, with humane treatment from those around them, without hectoring and badgering and pummeling from religious institutions determined to beat them back into closeted silence.

I was recently asked to participate in a national project that is gathering the testimony of LGBTQ people around the country about how we've managed, survived, thrived, despite the death threats, the attempts to destroy our careers (and our lives), the hectoring and badgering and pummelling in the name of God. When the crew assigned to interview me come to do that, what can I say except what Ellen says about her coming out: I have been given one life. I was determined to live it. Because I am a believer, I am persuaded that God gave this life to me.

And if I am not true to the life God has given me, I am not true to the God who gave it to me.

Here are clips continuing the commemoration of Ellen's coming out episode at the head of the posting.

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