by Betty Degeneres (a summary by Pat Evert)
THREE WORDS, SPOKEN two decades ago by my daughter Ellen at the age of twenty, changed my life forever. It hurt even more to know that she had carried the burden of her secret, unable to tell anyone. All this hiding had given her a sense of shame, and she didn’t want to live like that anymore. Her weariness at having to hide part of herself had influenced her choice. I was amazed at Ellen’s focus and her relative calm throughout the hysteria, even when televangelists and religious extremists went on the warpath with their discriminatory, homophobic rhetoric. Of course it upset her, though, and it angered me. It was horrible. It was unchristian. In Birmingham, Alabama, where the local ABC affiliate refused to broadcast the show, an entrepreneurial young man named Kevin Snow arranged an Ellen party in a hotel ballroom for a private showing—via satellite. Nearly 3,000 local celebrators attended. Since then, Kevin told me, the gay community in Birmingham has become more organized and cohesive. Many said they watched in absolute wonder, not believing that this was finally happening on network TV. Others described a huge feeling of relief—somehow this show was taking away their collective pretense of normality by saying to the world that gay people are normal and that pretending otherwise isn’t healthy for anybody. Her personal victory was shared by everyone who had a stake in fairness and equality for our gay and lesbian citizens. The ice has been broken. We are in every job, we’re every color. We’re not out to take over the world. We just want to live in it.
Maybe, because of her gift for comedy, that’s why Ellen had stepped—pretty much unwittingly—into the role of a pioneer. Lives were being changed for the better; indeed, lives were being saved. Those extremists—how they can call themselves Christians and preach hate, I just don’t know. As if only unattractive people could be gay. Ridiculous, derogatory, and unacceptable. Another one, purporting so-called “family values,” said that Ellen was a blond, blue-eyed girl next door who could be Miss America, so why on earth would she want to be a lesbian? Some people hide a little bit of who they are because it’s safer in this world to hide than to be yourself. There is so much you can do, so many lives you, personally, will be able to touch. A voice of calm and reason amid all the hysteria and hateful rhetoric masquerading as religion. Gay men and women have the same right to be out in the open, breathing the same air, as any of us. Looking at them and thinking of the ignorance and discrimination they face—just because being gay or lesbian is a part of who they are. It was a shock to learn that only eleven states in this country have laws to protect gay and lesbian workers from unfair discrimination on the job.
In introducing the president, Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Birch noted how isolated and ignored the gay community had been by previous administrations. All America loses if we let prejudice and discrimination stifle the hopes or deny the potential of a single American. All America loses when any person is denied or forced out of a job because of sexual orientation. Being gay, the last time I thought about it, seemed to have nothing to do with the ability to read a balance book, fix a broken bone, or change a spark plug.
Ellen finally got to the point where living honestly and being proud of who I am was more important than fame. Ironically, my being honest made me more famous. So much for those who said it would hurt my career. I was willing to risk all and I was rewarded for it. My life is better than it’s ever been—I found love, and there’s nothing more important than that. I never wanted to be an activist—I just wanted to entertain people to make them feel good. But if by standing up for what I think is right makes me an activist—I’m an activist. They understood that this wasn’t something she was doing to rebel or to upset them. Our gay family members don’t need fixing, this is who they are. They are giving us their gift of their true, honest selves, living their lives as they were meant to. By what right do others presume to change this whole segment of society?
Another area of serious concern is the lack of freedom so many gay citizens have in their place of work. The more gay couples I met, the more examples of love, devotion, and true commitment I saw. These are partners who have been together not because of society, but in spite of it. People will look back in disbelief at today’s discrimination. A family should be the safest place on earth, a place where our sons and daughters receive unconditional love. Love can transform ignorance to understanding and rejection to acceptance. Rumors of Ellen’s cancellation had been flying around for weeks. The network wasn’t going to make an official announcement for another month, but Ellen wasn’t at all hopeful. ABC-Disney had tried to put a parental warning label on the show—evidence that they were unable to stand up to the antigay invective from right-wing organizations who had targeted the show from the moment the closet door had opened. Obviously, Ellen was spurring change that seemed to be scaring some people—whether they might be gay themselves, middle-of-the-road, or homophobic. The status quo had been challenged.
What was changing? Most dramatically, from my point of view, a growing number of gay people were deciding to come out, and a growing number of straight family members and friends were taking an active, supportive role. If not for Ellen, I and so many others across the world may still be hiding. She’s my hero, as are you for supporting her.
While carrying this heavy burden, Tom continued working every day. Yet he couldn’t share with anyone on the job what he was going through at home. He said if that had been his wife dying, he would have had all kinds of support. I really believe that these tolerant communities represent the majority of Americans. I am convinced that it is the intolerant people who are in the minority and on the fringes of society. It’s hard to be rational with irrational people, especially when they’re convinced that they’re right and you’re wrong. A lot of these people who are so hateful are using God and the Bible to justify their hateful actions, and that’s just the opposite of what I believe God is—which is Love. I am alarmed by the increasingly strident rhetoric of extremist groups who are making all possible efforts to dictate what and how you believe. I felt that these people would love me through the toughest trial to be visited upon me. But reality struck hard in this community of brothers and sisters, and they have more or less closed their hearts, minds and doors to me and my family. How could so many have gone so far afield from the teachings of the One they profess to follow? Religion should never be an excuse not to love. That’s what I said to the young gay woman I met in the Midwest who told me, “My mother won’t have anything to do with me—she’s Catholic.” The leaders and ministers who use religion as an excuse to preach hate and judgment should be held accountable. The same people who hate them hate me. If I don’t stand up for others who are being persecuted, who’ll stand up for me when it’s my turn? It’s not only important but vital for gays and lesbians to come out—to be able to live openly, truthfully, and unafraid. Give all people the sense of self-worth they deserve. Let them know they’re OK just the way they are.
For all families, that is the unconditional acceptance, love, and support for each other. Second, be patient. Third, celebrate your honesty. You’ll find out personally how much better your life can be, how close your family and friends will eventually become, and how strong you feel once you have embraced the truth. “What an incredible journey the past eleven years has been! Learning our son is gay has opened up a new world for me, and I am so grateful, grateful to so many of you in P-FLAG who have enriched my life.” They are the same parents you know and love; they are just being more honest with you. I’ve heard it said that with the word “heterosexual” the accent is on “hetero” and with the word “homosexual” the accent is on “sexual.” I’m positive that for a committed, loving homosexual couple, sex is no more or less important than it is for a committed, loving heterosexual couple. When you know somebody’s sexuality, what do you really know about them? I think outing someone before he or she is ready to take this step is unbelievably cruel. As Ellen has said, it is as much a part of who she is as the color of her skin. Look at the message gay teenagers have gotten: “What you’re feeling is wrong, unnatural, abnormal, sinful, abominable, an aberration.” Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. The best cure for homophobia is getting to know a gay person. If you suffer from this “curable” disease, make the effort to go out and expand your horizons. After struggling and learning, we’re all finding our place in life—purpose, wholeness, authenticity, fulfillment, love. I couldn’t be more grateful, realizing that there is no station, that “the true joy of life is the trip.” What an important message. I think this applies very well to my own message about love and acceptance. If we all focused on being grateful for every day and looking for the good in everything and everyone around us, much of our hate and bigotry and fear would fall away. Our gay family members will be embraced and celebrated by all their loved ones. They will be appreciated and secure in the workplace. They will not face physical or mental abuse; rather, they will be treated fairly and equally throughout our nation. This, of course, includes the right to marry. Go with love, joy, peace, and happiness in your heart. Heal the world.