An Ellen for the Ages

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Advocate.com

An Ellen for the Ages

by
Cathy Renna

It is hard to believe that a decade has passed since Ellen DeGeneres and her television character came out. How could you forget the iconic April 14, 1997, cover of Time ("Yep, I'm Gay") and the extraordinary amount of attention the April 30, 1997, coming-out episode of Ellen garnered? Over 42 million people watched it, 2,000 of whom I had the privilege of being with in Birmingham, Ala., after we rallied to create an event when the local ABC affiliate refused to air the episode. It was the largest gay event in Alabama history. It was a life-changing experience for me as an activist and even more so for the LGBT community in Alabama and beyond.

Remember Jerry Falwell calling her "Ellen Degenerate"? How brilliant. Ellen once commented that this was a favorite schoolyard epithet, which demonstrates Falwell's maturity-and creativity. I was lucky enough to debate the good Reverend Falwell on national television. Pity there was no YouTube then, because I kicked his butt. "I'm sorry," I said as he berated me about families not wanting to see lesbians on television, "but Mr. Falwell is missing the point here, and that point is: reality. We are part of your families, and we have families." Score one for the team. Even the MSNBC host, Jodi Applegate, laughed out loud.

It seemed like a golden age for the community back then. Bill Clinton was president and, despite his faults, was certainly the most supportive person we've ever had in the White House. The religious right was falling all over itself, outing the likes of Tinky Winky and Barney. We had strong lesbian leaders at many of our national organizations. It felt like change was happening fast and that more progress was inevitable. We soon got a difficult wake-up call.

Clinton's time in office unraveled in scandal, and we saw antigay groups jumping on "reparative therapy." I found myself at the center of the media frenzy in Wyoming after Matthew Shepard's murder in October 1998 and witnessed the nation's realization that antigay violence is far more common than they imagined. In the late 1990s and early in the new century, media outlets gave platforms to Laura Schlessinger and Michael Savage, and we spent tremendous effort and resources fighting back. The Catholic Church abuse scandal was laid at the feet of gay priests.

As we fast-forward to 2007 we should celebrate progress despite the challenges. Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars. Turn on the television and you will not only see programming like The L Word but entire networks like Logo and Here dedicated to the community. Films like Boys Don't Cry opened the door for Transamerica and more discussion about gender identity issues than ever before. Brokeback Mountain broke more than records at the box office; it started a conversation about the struggles of LGBT people from our point of view, not from the outside looking in.

Perfect? Of course not. Progress? Definitely. We often lose sight of how much progress we have made and so quickly we've made it. Patience and persistence are both needed in the long run.

Unfortunately, I often see more progress in our culture than in our community. In recent years we have fewer lesbians at the helm of our national organizations. We are fortunate to have the likes of Jennifer Chrisler at Family Pride, Kate Kendell at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Mara Keisling at the National Center for Transgender Equality. The top five groups in our community are all run by men, and I cannot help but notice the glaring lack of diversity. I think it does have a real impact, at least symbolic and at most detrimental, on women and people of color in the LGBT community.

On February 18 the community lost a lesbian icon, Barbara Gittings. Barbara was a pioneer, active in the first gay organizations and founder of "The Ladder," the first lesbian publication. She was protesting for gay rights in 1965 (the year I was born) at the White House and was one of a few women involved in groups like the Mattachine Society. She remained active in the community until she passed away last month. Her last act of visibility was to come out in her assisted-living community's newsletter. She knew that coming out is something we will do all our lives.

There is a wonderful clip of her that I recently saw in a tribute video. She describes her first meeting at the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian organization founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in the 1950s: "I was in a room with 12 other lesbians for the first time, and oh, what a thrill that was." Signature Barbara, especially that ever-present enthusiasm and positive attitude. I think we all have our "moment" like that. Now, of course, it can happen online as much as offline, but that seminal (or should we call it "ovarian"?) moment is still very important.

We all know the struggle is far from over. It was only in 2003 that sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme Court. Use of the word faggot as an epithet warrants "rehab" but is still up for debate, and antigay discrimination, bullying, and hate crimes go on unabated.

It is a complex world we live in as LGBT people: lots of progress mixed with a healthy dose of challenges. So many of our issues intersect with our class, gender, gender expression, and race as much as they do with our sexual orientation. What keeps me going? I have the honor of working with a lot of queer young people and LGBT families, and it gives me great hope when I see the care and thought that goes into the activism of the current and coming generations of youth. They get the intersections, they get the overlap, they get the complexity more than my generation does.

Bottom line is this: We all have a lot to thank Ellen for today. Even if you think she doesn't use her now-enormous platform enough for activism, she is leading by example in living her life openly and honestly. When she walks down the red carpet with Portia de Rossi and says she waits for the day they can get married legally, she is doing far more than most celebrities. I don't think we would have had Will & Grace without Ellen. Frankly, she has done far more than many of us in the community.

We definitely benefit from having more out celebrities in the world, but the truly transformative moments (read: legal advances for individuals and families) come from the hard daily work of activists and individuals who live their truth and work for change. That is why I hope everyone takes a moment to reflect on 1997 and 2007. We are entering a presidential cycle where a woman is the de facto Democratic nominee, and yet we are still waffling (or is it tiptoeing?) around the basic rights of existence for LGBT people and whether we are "immoral." It is now or never to make your voice heard. If ACT UP can come back into the fray (Goddess knows, we could use a creative and more confrontational way to address the Ann Coulters and General Paces of the world in 2008), we all can do something. Do it for Barbara Gittings. Do it for Ellen. Do it for all the kids who aren't out yet. Do it for yourself.

Advocate.com © 2007 PlanetOut Inc.

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