Ellen D. and George W.B. – Will McMillan
In 1997, Ellen Degeneres appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to defend something that shouldn’t need defending. Earlier that year she’d come out as gay. Believing (correctly) that being true to herself was more important than deceiving herself, that she was better off not living her life in the shadows, she’d opted to share with the world who and what she honestly was. She was a lesbian and decided to live life as one. She’d received death threats as a result. Her tv show was cancelled soon after. Her career was in the process of coming apart, based solely on her sexuality.
With Oprah at her side, a weary Ellen fielded questions from an audience that was, largely in part, there to support her. Except for those that weren’t.
“We’re being stuffed with this down our throat!” exclaimed one tearful, female audience member, frustrated by what she believed to be an overabundance of homosexual representation in television at that time. The lesbian wedding on Friends and the lesbian relationship that had been revealed on NYPD Blue, in particular. “And now you?” The woman’s outrage made her vibrate in her seat. “Why? Why?”
“Because you don’t have to fight to have anyone embrace you,” Ellen responded.
Twenty-three years later, it’s safe to say Ellen knows what it feels like to be embraced. Since the launch of her daytime talk show in 2003, she’s fawned over and been fawned in return by guests of such caliber as Barack Obama, Madonna, Justin Timberlake, and even Oprah Winfrey. She became the spokesperson for JC Penney (more on that later). And she won a total of 61 Emmys for her show, along with winning the People’s Choice Award a record 14 times.
“Be kind to one another,” Ellen says at the end of each show, as if she’s remembering her 1997 Oprah appearance, and maybe the assault that was 1997 altogether, and urging others to treat her the way she wished she were treated.
Deciding that kindness is tantamount to friendship, very recently Ellen spoke of her seemingly new friendship with former president George W. Bush. GWB, some seven years after Ellen publicly came out, told the nation that “we must work together to counter the negative influence of the culture and to send the right messages to our children.” This “influence” and “message” was regarding homosexuality. Soon after, GWB announced his support for a federal constitutional amendment that would protect marriage as a union between a man and a woman only. Fifteen years after that, GWB would be counted among Ellen as a friend.
Predictably, Ellen has taken on some backlash. How can she be friends with a person who actively worked against what she wanted in life? A marriage? A family? A career? Ellen, again predictably, responded:
“I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have.”
A fair enough observation. After all, we all have different beliefs, as Ellen pointed out, and we should (for the most part) be able to be friends with or get along with people who may not believe as we do. Sometimes, varying beliefs can be a compelling aspect to a relationship. Using myself as an example, my boyfriend does not believe in God. I do. To me, this is a fantastic dynamic of our relationship, since it forces me to consider a perspective outside of the one I naturally find myself in. To put it another way, his point of view forces me to examine my own, to be honest about what I believe in. And I think my belief does the same for him.
However, in her appraisal of “beliefs,” Ellen appears to be disregarding a rather subtle facet of homosexuality.
Being gay is not a belief. Any more than having a gender is a belief. Any more than being a race is a belief. It’s a fundamental, biological aspect of who and what you are as a person. As a human being. To reiterate, GW has said, to the nation, that people who are gay don’t deserve to be equal with people who are straight. He’s said that gay people should not be allowed to marry. He’s said that gay people shouldn’t be protected from violence. He’s said that gay people shouldn’t be protected from losing their jobs. And as far as I know, he’s never taken any of these proclamations back. If GW had publicly stated that he believes African Americans shouldn’t be allowed to marry, or should lose their jobs for being African, or shouldn’t be protected from assault for being African, I don’t know that any African American celebrity would be in a rush to defend GW’s “beliefs.” What say you, Oprah?
At this point in her career, Ellen is mostly safe from the sort of discrimination and violence LGBTQ folks are constantly in danger of running into. Sure, some group somewhere may protest her being the face of a J.C. Penney, but the days of losing a job for her sexuality are long behind her. At the end of the day, she can capitalize on any discrimination she faces, because she’s famous. She’s the wacky, dancing celebrity that everyone loves to love. Most of us will not receive that privilege. We’ll just lose our job. We’ll just get beaten up. And no one will come to our defense to help us keep dancing.
Civility and kindness do not have to go hand in hand with friendship. You can be civil, you can be considerate, but it’s another thing entirely to claim friendship with someone who considers you to be significantly less than them, who stands in front of a camera and declares to the nation that you, as a homosexual, do not matter as much. George W. Bush has done this. For Ellen to stand in front of a camera and declare to the nation that she can be friends with whomever she wants, even with people who value her life to be less, and that we, as a nation, should all get on board with that, isn’t just insulting, it’s thoughtless and dangerous, regardless of her intent. No longer in the fight to be embraced, she appears more than eager to keep it that way, even if means she’s rejecting what she was supposedly taking a stand for all those years ago. At least that’s my belief.