Someone in my life recently asked me when I was going to stop posting about gay stuff all the time. Needless to say, he’s still processing how he feels about me coming out. The answer, though, is that I don’t think I will. Not as long as there is still something to say. I’ve come to believe that talking about my gayness — through whatever platform that may be available to me — is important. Giving issues a face is important. I think it helps to humanize something that for many people is only just politicized. Stories matter. It matters that people see stories of folks whose journeys have been different from their own. And it matters for LGBT folks to see pieces of themselves reflected in someone else. To feel a little less alone. That familiarity — recognizing parts of yourself in someone else’s story — is also part what builds our capacity for empathy and can help to bridge divides in our society. That’s why I also believe strongly that seeing LGBT folks in the media, in particular, is also extremely important. Visibility matters.
President Obama recently released some statements and videos regarding marriage equality and human rights. Predictably, they are very politically controversial and drawing criticism from many already. For me, though, it just made me feel very… lucky. What an incredible moment in history, that I can watch for the first time my President — the leader of the free world — validate my right to live and love as freely as other American citizens. I am filled with gratitude for the LGBT folks who came before me who have fought for this moment. Living and dead, these folks helped make this moment possible. And whether their names are known to history now or not, I hope wherever they are, they feel seen. My warm feelings can quickly boil over with anger and frustration if I let myself pay attention to the blowback, however. And in some of that blowback I also see a potential opening for increased inclusivity. I noticed, for example, that Bristol Palin recently posted in her blog that Obama’s thoughts were, “merely reflecting what many teenagers think after one too many episodes of Glee.” Yep, it’s Glee’s fault. Thanks, Obama! Sounds ridiculous. Of course, Glee didn’t make anyone gay. But on second thought… it probably did play in an important role in moving the needle a little bit closer to the just world we dream of.
In my high school, I was in our version of Glee Club — choir and show choir, to be exact! And I thrived in it. That was my world. Those people were my tribe. I was not the most popular kid in school, but when it came to musicals — I felt like I was. When I was singing or acting, I felt I had the support of our entire town. Because I did! My superlative senior year was Most Talented, and for a closeted kid who had been bullied in middle school, that pride and acceptance from my peers and community really did matter. The confidence that I gained from performing spilled over into all aspects of my life, helping me to build friendships across all the social circles in our school, lead student clubs, become student body president, and eventually because of all those things earn a full-ride scholarship as a first-generation college student. My point is — a show like Glee would have completely spoken to me at that age. I can’t, however, even imagine what it might have done for me to see gay characters openly sharing their lives within that same type of musical world I was in. Perhaps I wouldn’t have secretly struggled with depression or thoughts of self harm. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so alone or like someone who was irreparably damaged and going to Hell. I was not out in high school. No one was. I had actually never even met an openly gay person at that age, and still wouldn’t for several years. So, the only way I ever could have even possibly imagined what my life could look like in the future would have been through the TV screen.
Today I watched the YouTube video of Ellen first talking about coming out on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1997. At the 6:45 moment in the clip below a distraught mother in the audience ridicules Ellen’s “I’m Gay” cover on Time Magazine because her 10-year-old son might see it in the check-out isle at the grocery store.
Ellen’s response: “He should know.”
Although it was followed by a large applause, it wasn’t a particularly dramatic moment in the clip. I simply couldn’t let that sentence go, though. Wow – she was right. He should know. He should know gay people exist. He should know it’s okay to be gay. He should know. He needs to know.
When I was that kid’s age I already knew I was different. I certainly didn’t have any role models to look to, though, to help me make sense of it. No one to let me know that other people were like me. That I could still be happy and worthy of love. And that is the importance of Ellen, Will & Grace, Brothers & Sisters, Grey’s Anatomy, Modern Family, Glee, and all the other LGBT storylines that are being represented more and more in mainstream media now. I understand that it feels wrong and scary for some people like Bristol Palin. It’s important, though. For all of us! Not just us gays. Straight folks, too. These shows allow us to find the shared humanity that connects us all by telling stories of common human experiences… love, loss, trials, and triumphs. If there had been more public LGBT role models for me growing up it would not have been what made me gay. It wouldn’t have even made me gay sooner. All it would have done is let me see a part of myself reflected back to me through another person. All it would have done is help me feel less alone. It’s a powerful thing to feel normal.
I didn’t know a gay couple until I was 22 years old. I had met a few gay people by this point, but they were all single. They were alone. It made me think all gay people must be alone and that they could never have a family or a “normal” life. That they could never be happy like a straight person could. I had no way of knowing what a daily life could look like for a gay person. The only way I could possibly know anything at all from my small town in Oklahoma would have been through the escape of and exposure to other people through television.
Let’s get more specific. I hated the gay couple on the TV show Brothers & Sisters. Kevin was a jerk and Scotty was too effeminate. I mean, I hated them. They annoyed me and made me uncomfortable. Super uncomfortable. In retrospect, I probably didn’t hate them at all, though. I was just terrified to be face-to-face with my biggest fear and darkest secret. I “hated” them… but I watched them closely. Every single week. I was always drawn back to them with a very cautious curiosity. Looking back, I can see now that I learned to love myself by watching them learn to love each other. (Pause. Re-read that last sentence one more time. It’s so true and so powerful). I remember the episode where they had their commitment ceremony. Frame by frame, that episode is imprinted in my memory. It was the first time I was ever able to visualize something like that for myself. And I did. In that exact moment, I visualized myself as a groom in that same room, marrying another groom, with a specific friend of mine officiating, similar to Kevin’s sister who officiated theirs. Instantly – that image popped in my head. Literally for the first time ever, I was able to imagine my wedding. I had never even allowed myself to imagine something like that until that moment. I didn’t realize I could.
Can you imagine being in college and realizing for the first time that you just might end up alright after all? I had just assumed I wouldn’t marry. Mostly because I was afraid of being one of those men who marry a woman, cheat on her with a man, and then destroy his family in some big scandal. Even though I know now (and have faith our government will make it a reality soon) that I could potentially marry a man someday, it’s still hard to find examples of what that looks like in real life, especially if you live in a rural area. So, when I watched Calista Flockhart, who plays Kevin’s sister, officiate the ceremony in that episode, I remember immediately thinking: Wow, how cool would it be if my friend April officiated mine? And immediately I realized I had just let myself consider that as an actual possibility. Suddenly, it occurred to me I might have something I never thought I could. A TV show gave me that.
Throughout the episode Sally Field, who plays Kevin’s mother, argues with her son constantly. He insists she is going overboard with the planning because it’s “just a civil union.” In a dramatic scene moments before the ceremony begins, she reveals the beautiful decorations she had put together for him and explains through tears how he deserves a real wedding just like anyone else. She says she helped plan all his siblings’ weddings and never thought she’d be able to do that for him. He, too, deserved a beautiful wedding and he, too, deserved a beautiful love. I watched this episode (and this scene) over and over and over and over. Every time Sally Field gave her speech, I felt something I couldn’t explain. I felt like she was talking directly to me. I felt like Sally Field was my loving and accepting parent. And that she told me I deserved love. Even though I obviously wasn’t in a situation even remotely similar to what was actually happening in the scene, I felt like this maternal woman on the screen could see me. And she valued me. I felt validated. I felt like sobbing, but I wouldn’t dare let me myself do that. I hated those damn grooms, remember. I hated them. But, actually, I think I was saved by them. In them, I could see and confront my own insecurities and imagine something better. For the first time, when I considered a possibility for love, I felt hopeful.
Media matters. Brothers & Sisters didn’t make me gay. But It did do something important. It took a topic that terrified me, that I avoided at all cost, that produced instant anxiety and loneliness for me, that was a source of depression and hopelessness for me… and it turned that into a reason to believe. It gave me hope. Some say, that’s the problem exactly! These shows make young, impressionable teenagers think it is normal and okay to be gay.
Well… it is dammit! And as Ellen said, they should know. So, support shows with LGBT characters. It matters more than you know. And for some rural kid somewhere, it may be the very thing that saves them. And to the person who asked me at the beginning of this post when I’d stop talking about being gay: Sorry, I think I’ll keep talking. And so should we all. Thank you to those who are. To those who use their voice to advocate for and celebrate the reflections of stories that need to be heard.