Making Gay Okay: The Evolution of "Coming Out"

1997: Madeleine Albright becomes the first female Secretary of State, Titanic brings teens to tears and Eddie Murphy “gives a ride” to a transsexual prostitute. This was also the year that Ellen DeGeneres Willy Wonka-elevator’d straight through the glass ceiling of sexuality when she came out as a lesbian during the fourth season of her eponymous sitcom.

In the now-infamous “puppy” episode, Ellen’s therapist (an appropriately cast Oprah Winfrey) helps her come to the conclusion that she’s gay — And based on the way that people reacted, you would have thought that pigs in tutus were flying rampant in the clouds. The episode coincided with Ellen’s “Yep, I’m Gay” Time magazine cover and countless interviews that clarified to the public that this wasn’t just made-for-t.v. There was a lot of backlash: Winfrey got race-driven threats, Laura Dern (who played Ellen’s love interest in the episode) couldn’t get work for more than a year. Ellen was cancelled the following season.

“I assumed there would be some fallout, but I didn’t realize the amount,” DeGeneres said. “I was that person before, and I thought, ‘How did I lose my entire fan base?’ It’s not like all of a sudden I ripped some mask off.”

16 years later, Ellen has won 13 Emmys, snagged the No. 1 spot on People With Money’s top 10 highest-paid comediennes and is legally wed to her babelicious love, Portia de Rossi. In short, things have changed.

Last summer, after Anderson Cooper (whose sexuality was long-speculated) came out via an email to the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan, an article titled “The New Art of Coming Out” graced the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Cooper’s coming out was hardly a shock to most, but the way in which he decided to reveal it was a testament to our culture’s progress in normalizing homosexuality.

“The current vibe [of coming out] is, by contrast, almost defiantly mellow,” wrote EW‘s Mark Harris. “This is part of who I am, I don’t consider it a big deal or a crisis, and if you do, that’s not my problem. It may sound like a shrug, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for indifference. By daring anyone to overreact, the newest generation of gay public figures is making a clear statement that there is a ”new normal” — and it consists of being plainspoken, clear, and truthful about who you are.”

This “new normal” is starting to become positively contagious. It’s what prompted Evan Rachel Wood, the (married and pregnant) 25-year-old star of A Case of You, to finally open up to her family about her bisexuality in 2011, and what has allowed stars like Jim Parsons, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jane Lynch to avoid the carefully crafted PR statement and fly relatively under the radar with matter-of-fact, just-another-word-in-a-sentence reveals.

“It’s become more socially acceptable,” Wood said. “With me, the reason why I came out is because I felt like now was the time to no longer be silent about it. I wanted to wait for the right time and wait to have enough years under my belt where people knew that it wasn’t a phase or anything and I wasn’t doing it for attention; this is a part of who I am, and I’m old enough to really know who I am by now. And I had to wait until I told my family, too, which I was really nervous about! And I have a really chill, understanding family, too.”

Clearly, plenty of people still struggle with social and/or familial acceptability. And not everyone can comfortably come to terms with the anxieties of being out. I have a good friend, “B”, who’s gayer than the day is long and works as a buyer for women’s shoes. B and his boyfriend have lived together for the last two years (they’ve been together for five) in a precious apartment you’d swear was a collaborative effort between Martha Stewart and Bree Van de Kamp. Approaching 30, B has never actually come out to his Southern Baptist parents. So when his parents first came to visit him at his new apartment, B would refer to his boyfriend as his roommate. They have a one bedroom. Today, B is out to one of his sisters, but despite having his boyfriend join the family for occasional holidays, it’s still never been verbalized. And B’s not sure that it ever will be.

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  • Kaique Riccaldoni

    Coming out nowadays is so natural for most of people. When I was 16 I started kissing boys and I told my parents I didn’t feel attracted to women and they understood it.

    • Tali Stein

      The big problem is that for a lot of people it still isn’t. You are lucky with your story. And it’s wonderful that there are so many more of those positive stories now. But a lot of people still don’t have that kind of story. It might not be as vehement as it once was, especially for those who are younger, but the struggle is still very present, even at a family level and even when religion isn’t overly involved.

      So much has changed, but humanity in general has so far to go, for things from the right to marry, the right to engage in sexual acts (still illegal in some countries), and in extreme cases to the right to continue living.

  • Tali Stein

    My comment to Kaique was a bit of a downer, but I do totally agree with you Parry that it’s so amazing to see how far things have come in the span from Ellen to Anderson. It gives people who are facing harder times in their personal situation (unaccepted families, etc) and helps a lot of people feel more comfortable in the public sphere. It’s amazing to look at how far things have come, but I have this voice in the back of my head still that is all “I do not understand how this is even an issue anymore period.” The hardships that still exist seem to ludicrous to me, even though they are very real and present.

  • Molly O’Hara

    I forget to sensor myself. I don’t care, I think, what others’ reactions may be, I am me, and part of being me is being gay, and the rest of myself- well that’s the rest. I also think I enjoy the surprise I get from people, I am fairly attractive, dress femininely-more or less depending on the day- and love my make-up. There is little about the way I look to indicate my sexuality, and so I come out frequently and often in random ways because, in part, I want to change the perception of lesbians, I want to challenge the norms, and I want to be part of the progression forward.

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