Ellen Comes Out

Degeneres' Disclosure: After Hype Fades, Will Show Be Cultural Watershed Or Transient Trivia?

April 29, 1997

NO ONE CAN PREDICT how the 21st century will regard tomorrow's episode of "Ellen," in which actress Ellen DeGeneres "comes out" as a lesbian in fiction, as she did recently in fact.

Will the situation comedy be remembered as a cultural watershed that begat a greater acceptance of homosexuality? Or will it amount to fleeting ratings gimmickry relegated years from now to a trivia question?

This much we know: On prime-time TV, trivia comes much more easily than watersheds. When Captain Kirk kissed Lieutenant Uhura on "Star Trek" 30 years ago, it did nothing to smooth the path for interracial relationships. Similarly, the kiss between Mariel Hemingway and Roseanne Arnold on the latter's show elicited "oohs" and "aahs" in 1994, but it is recalled by few outside of TV junkies.

But strip away the "Coming Out with Ellen" parties sponsored by a vodka-maker, the Ellen "websites" and the teeth-gnashing over skittish advertisers, and the real agent of change may be the actress herself. Ms. DeGeneres is demonstrating bravery and taking a huge career gamble, and not just because of the likes of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The mainstream public has gained some sensitivity, but still wrestles awkwardly with the issue of homosexuality. Ask Bill Clinton, whose "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military distracted his infant presidency for many months.

Ms. DeGeneres presents a different face of homosexuality to the public, a face it needs to see. The gay celebrities the public knows, particularly in music and fashion, often feed the stereotype of people living on the urban fringe.

On the other hand, Ms. DeGeneres has always come off as the girl next door: perky, likable, witty, not weird. Her poignant recounting to TV interviewer Diane Sawyer of her personal struggle in revealing her sexual identity may do more to alter public sentiment on homosexuality than a season's worth of sitcoms.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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