I've been following the Supreme Court hearings on California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act over the past two days with wonder and amazement. I believe that marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our generation. It took Obama some time -- some would posit too long -- but he has changed the course of human events in our country.
Earlier this week, NPR ran a great story about Ellen DeGeneres, which reminded me of a piece I had written three years ago about her and a conversation with my daughter, who was 10 at the time. Rereading it, it still says almost everything I want to say about this issue today (including the fact that I basically worship Ellen DeGeneres.)
So here's to the death of DOMA, the defeat of Prop 8, the growing understanding in our country that everyone should be free to love who they want, and that GLBT couples should be afforded the same marital rights and privileges (and headaches) as their straight neighbors.
And here's my paean to Ellen:
I was very excited about the selection of Ellen DeGeneres as the replacement for Paula Abdul on "American Idol" this season. I think she's hilarious and brave and beautiful, as well as a great foil to Simon.
My kids and I just discovered "Idol" last year – yes, I know we were about seven years too late, but never the less, it's great family entertainment. No cursing, no inappropriate plots, no kissing or yucky stuff, but just enough raciness and tension to keep me interested. And some decent music too.
When the selection of Ellen was announced, my 10-year-old daughter apparently heard her name as "Ellen The Generous." For a few weeks, she walked around thinking that Ellen The Generous would be the new Idol judge. For a lot of reasons, I love this moniker. But the best thing about Ellen's rise on Idol happened on our home turf.
My daughter and I were having a quick dinner after basketball practice, and we were laughing about the fact that she had thought Ellen's name was "The Generous." She asked who Ellen was. I told her she was a comic, and that she had her own talk show. She asked, "Like Oprah? Like Tyra?" Indeed, I told her, and chuckled to myself because not too long ago she had trouble distinguishing between "Oprah" and "Opera" and she didn't understand why I also found that so funny.
I decided to tell her what else I knew about Ellen. I explained that about 13 years ago, Ellen had a sit-com on television, and she decided to use that show as an opportunity to tell the world that she was gay. I explained that this was a big deal, because even a decade ago, celebrities were not so open about being gay.
Her reply? "You mean she is a lesbian, not gay." Um, yes.
"Yes," I replied, admittedly a bit taken aback by her worldliness, "I mean she's a lesbian. And there were a lot of people back then who thought that was a bad thing, and neither Ellen nor other stars wanted people to know that about them."
"Oh." And it was back to slurping soup – that was the end of the conversation.
We live in a community in which my children have known gay and lesbian people and families their whole lives. There are families we know and love with two moms, families with two dads, single gay parents, neighbors who are gay, gay people we know at work, gay people we know at school, at the pool, and on and on and on. There are gay and lesbian people on television and in the movies. Half the time, we don't even know if someone is gay, which is as it should be.
I don't know if the question of same-sex marriage has reached my kids' consciousness (it hasn't been a dinner table conversation but it certainly permeates the news) but I would imagine that they wouldn't be able to understand why a gay or lesbian couple couldn't get married.
Neither can I.
I was amazed by my conversation about Ellen with my daughter because it sealed for me the utter normality of this issue in our lives. Of course, I understand that it's still a monumental issue in the lives of our friends for whom discrimination, hatred, vitriol and the lack of a state-sanctioned union are challenges that they must face every day. And there are still the terrible stories of the Constance McMillans of the world, the lesbian teen who was just hornswaggled by her high school into attending a fake prom after she lost her suit (brought by the ACLU) to bring her girlfriend to the real dance.
But the fact that for our straight-but-not-narrow family, it's simply another facet of our lives, is representative of an enormous step forward in our country's attitudes towards the GLBT community.
When I was in high school, in the still-groovy late '70s in Brooklyn, I had some friends who were definitively gay but not yet out, and some who were publicly experimenting. We would jokingly ask, "Is Pat gay today?" We thought that was cool, but didn’t give much thought to our friends who were painfully keeping a part of their lives under wraps.
In college and then into the mid-'80s in New York City, my gay friends were finding their footing and an ability to give voice to their lives and their concerns. But living a gay life was still very much underground in the more public sphere. By 1988, when AIDS was starting to decimate the arts community in which I was working, it was clear to me that there was something very wrong with the silence that was shattering my friends' lives.
Today, over 20 years later, there has been a sea change in American attitudes towards the gay community. According to a recent Pew research poll, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/politics/july-dec09/gay-marriage_10-12.html, nearly 60% of Americans support same-sex marriage, a marked increase from even just a few years ago. It is not unusual to see gay and lesbian actors, singers, writers, and other public figures, even politicians. Sexy singer Ricky Martin's recent coming out was greeted with a shrug of the collective shoulder and didn't even merit a cover on People Magazine.
The Obama administration, with its desire to lift the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays and lesbians in the military, has made an enormous statement of tolerance. When "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was first institutionalized, it was posited as a step forward – allowing for the fact that gays and lesbians were in the military and allowing them to serve, so long as they didn't make anyone uncomfortable. Today, we understand that living a covert life is as detrimental to morale and self esteem and society at large as was the full-out lie that previous generations of gays and lesbians had to live.
And so I feel like Ellen has earned my daughter's name for her. Her generous admission 13 years ago opened the path for many to embrace their sexuality, to be open about who they are and to live typical lives with partners and families. She has become a role model for the gay and straight communities alike of a woman who lives her convictions and does it with humor, dedication and grace.
Ellen "The Generous" indeed.
Photo via ronpaulrevolt2008 via flickr