Last Friday, during a lovely speech at the Human Right Campaign’s “Time to THRIVE” conference, Ellen Page revealed that she was gay. It was a personally defining moment, and the way that she came out — nervously asking all of us to be less horrible to one another — couldn’t have been more perfect. It was a terrifically honest, soul-baring decent moment delivered by one of the most decent people in Hollywood.
What was perhaps just as remarkable about the revelation, however, was in how it was received, not with jeers, but with embraces. The fact that Ellen Page is gay was not that big of a deal to most of us, but we were proud for her to be able to come out and admit as much. Even in 2014, it takes courage to openly admit who we are to the rest of the world, but it’s heartening to know that when high-profile actors and athletes come out, they’re not scorned. They get standing ovations.
It hasn’t always been this way. We haven’t always rallied to support those who come out as gay or lesbian. In fact, Ellen Page’s speech reminded me of the coming out revelation of another Ellen. Seventeen years ago, Ellen Degeneres — the lead in a popular ABC sitcom — revealed that she was a lesbian on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and shortly thereafter, her character on that sitcom, Ellen, also announced that she was gay. Despite what the studio audience might have you believe in that scene, however, Degeneres’ revelation was not met with the same kind of acceptance that Ellen Page’s was. Right now in America, there are increasingly smaller pockets of resistance, but seventeen years ago, it was the pockets of acceptance that were smaller.
What Ellen Degeneres did, first on The Oprah Winfrey Show and later, on her own sitcom, was monumental. This was bigger than even a straight man (Tom Hanks) bringing the first gay lead character to a mainstream Hollywood film in Philadelphia. This wasn’t a character. This was a human being. This was a beloved actress choosing to stand up to those conservative forces in 1997 and allow herself to be discriminated against, allow herself to be shouted down, and allow those with different agendas to make her the enemy.
Sweet, charming, funny, and inoffensive, Ellen Degeneres was of course perfectly cast for that role. She had the amazing ability to make the case against homosexuality being an abomination, as so many shouting people had argued — who could ever consider Ellen Degeneres an abomination? — and for easily deflecting criticism with a sly joke, all the while standing out in front and absorbing the scorn and hatred for an entire class of people.
We often forget it now, because many people — celebrities and non-celebrities alike — are more free with their sexuality, more comfortable, and less afraid to be who they are. But Ellen Degeneres was not always the smiling, lovable, infectious talk-show host with a habit of dancing with her guests. She was also a pioneer, and to so very many people — gay and straight alike — a real, honest-to-God hero.
I encourage you to watch this clip from an Ellen Degeneres’ interview back in 1997 with Oprah Winfrey, and pay close attention to Ellen’s face while those in the audience accuse her of flaunting her sexuality, or of being a sinner on the same level with murderers and adulterers. You can almost see her absorb the stings and continue smiling throughout while holding back tears. It’s one of the bravest moments I’ve ever seen on television, and I can’t help but to think that if it weren’t for Ellen Degeneres in 1997, Ellen Page in 2014 might still be holding on to a secret.