the case for closeted stars


Published April 29, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit, I had yet to hear of the "Ellen" backlash among hip gays and lesbians when a friend of mine -- a sunny heterosexual named Heidi, no less -- called to warn me of it. She'd gotten wind of flyers and bumper stickers appearing in San Francisco's Castro District: "Go Back In the Closet, Ellen!" In fact, by the time we spoke, there was an emerging backlash against the backlash: a return to the gay community's original position, in support of both the lesbian actress, Ellen DeGeneres, and the lesbian sitcom character, Ellen Inez Morgan, this time with a keener sense of irony and a heavy dollop of self-consciousness. It may even be headed into the third phase, the fiercest one of all, Heidi hypothesized: a backlash against the backlash against the backlash.

Backlash cubed? The politically correct mind reels.

I didn't see it coming. Maybe it's because I am an avowed "Ellen" fan; my defenses were down. Or maybe it's because I live on the cusp of Pacific Heights, a lifetime away from the Castro, where such movements evaporate long before they make it onto the 24 Divisadero bus. What was this foul mood running rampant through the gay community like a virus on America Online? I had some serious catching up to do.

My investigation yielded less of political, historical or pop-cultural significance than I'd hoped for. The backlash against "Ellen" is not so much a backlash as a back-turning, a bored, shoulder-shrugging "whatever," which may be manifested Wednesday night with a rebellious channel-switching from ABC to MSNBC or, most insulting of all, to the TV debut of "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective."

This dismissiveness interests me. Why do some gays and lesbians care so little about their sister Ellen? There's the obvious fact that, in San Francisco, as in many other cities, Ellen's coming out doesn't amount to much politically. There's no Bay Area backlash from the Christian right, no boycott from local advertisers, no picketing of TV stations. And it appears to be a cultural event with little personal impact. For most of us who came out early in life or are younger, Ellen's lesbianism at age 39 (35 on her show) seems irrelevant or, at best, charming, like a phantom episode of "Bewitched," wherein Endora (played by lesbian icon Agnes Moorehead) is accidentally outed by ditzy Aunt Hagatha -- something we'd figured out long ago. But I suspect our jadedness is a cover for some real discomfort.

As assimilated and media-savvy as we may be, many gays and lesbians are embarrassed to see, hear and have to talk about someone coming out in her late 30s. Ellen, both actress and character, seems a little long in the tooth finally to be discovering her sexuality. It's as if she has reprised the Claire Danes teen-angst role in "My So-Called Life." That this kind of sexual infantilism remains a fact of gay life -- the long-delayed adolescence as a consequence of fear, homophobia and self-loathing -- is left over from an old agenda, something we're tired of discussing, and certainly something we'd prefer not to be watching on TV. We love seeing straight people squirm in the presence of gays -- such as Roseanne's husband, Dan, having to deal with Leon, the gay Martin Mull character. The tables are turned. The power's in our hands. But we'd rather change the channel than see gay people squirm about their own sexuality.

Indeed, anyone can change the channel on Wednesday, whatever their orientation or moral position. "It's just TV," as one friend complained to me wearily. What he left unsaid was a sharper criticism: It's TV drained of subversiveness, its secrets revealed, its hidden gay codes erased. Sure, this means American TV will have its first gay leading character. But where's the fun in that? "Ellen" was best in its first two seasons, this line of thinking goes, when she was obviously a dyke, but no one knew -- or, at least, talked about it -- except for her gay following. It was our show. And when DeGeneres starred in her first Major Motion Picture, "Mr. Wrong," the title was the punch line to a bad inside joke. Now the gay references on Ellen are so obvious, even straight people get them.

Secrecy is a language gay people understand and appreciate, as are wickedness and cruelty. As subjects of rumor ourselves, especially before coming out, we come to revel in it. Where do you think all of the gossip about supposedly gay actors or politicians usually begins? Truth be told, many gays like their role models in the closet, long before they appear on magazine covers and talk shows. In short, when they're still mythical.

Many preferred k.d. lang 10 years ago, when only we knew who she sang her love songs to. For others, Greg Louganis was more appealing before his tell-all coming-out bestseller, back when he was a beautiful Olympic diver who we all knew was one of our own. Once upon a time, he was flawless and silent -- a god, capable of flying -- not a man with a painful past, now ill, shame-filled and earthbound.

So it's a little sad for some, knowing that Ellen will soon pass through celebrity's looking glass and become one of us, human, warts and all. That her lesbian debut has been commodified only makes it more distasteful. It's nothing but a desperate marketing ploy, many people claim. It's just for the May sweeps. For the Nielsens. It was a mediocre show, many gays are saying cynically, with nothing left to lose.

I think they're absolutely right: The "Ellen" coming out story line is an act of desperation, one that uncannily mirrors the desperation that I, for one, experienced when I came out 14 years ago. By that time, every last lie had been told. The last laughs had been squeezed out of every last self-deprecating joke. I was tired of secrecy. Tired of waiting. And tired of acting like a next-door neighbor of the lead character in a dreadful situation comedy. I was at the end of one so-called life and ready to start my queer one. Like "Ellen," I had nothing left to lose.

By Bill Hayes

Bill Hayes is a San Francisco writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Details and other publications.

MORE FROM Bill Hayes

Related Topics ------------------------------------------