The Right Kind of Gay
A few months ago, amidst one of my regular lifeless scrolls through Twitter (which I still somehow try to convince myself is an essential part of my nightly routine), I stumbled upon a thread where people were sharing their most horrific experiences, or ones they had heard from others, relating to one of the most visibly gay celebrities of our time, Ellen DeGeneres. I was intrigued by this, as a few months prior I had seen a tweet (side note: do I do anything else besides lurk Twitter? Apparently not) that showed a video from 2008, where Ellen hosted Mariah Carey as a guest on her talk show. I would have only been 14 years old at the time and just barely starting to figure out that I might not be as into girls as I had told myself I was, so I should admit that I don’t remember much else from 2008, and frankly didn’t do much more research into this video. But on its own, the video was pretty frightening.
In the video, Ellen is trying to get Mariah to reveal to the audience whether or not she is pregnant. Personally, I see it as a double-edged sword: if you go on a show like Ellen, you need to prepare yourself for shit like this. But on the other hand, people need to learn when to draw the line, especially when asking questions related to children or pregnancy. Naturally, Mariah is vague and doesn’t reveal much, which prompts Ellen to offer her a glass of champagne so that if she is pregnant, it will be obvious. This ploy works, but shortly after Mariah suffers a miscarriage.
Several years ago, I can remember occasionally passing the time or ignoring my schoolwork by binge-watching YouTube clips of Ellen interviewing celebrities. What starts out as one harmless video of Ellen asking Beyoncé how she got the alter-ego Sasha Fierce turns into an inescapable trip down a never-ending rabbit hole, and the next thing you know you’re totally hooked watching videos about celebrities you didn’t even know existed when you woke up that morning. I have also seen Ellen’s 2014 Oscars monologue a few times and thought it was pretty funny, and also followed her on Twitter up until fairly recently. This is about the extent to which I would engage with Ellen, which was honestly not much at all, but I thought she seemed like a pretty good person all around. And maybe she is – after all, I don’t know anything about her outside of who we see on camera and online. But a quick glance at the Mariah Carey incident makes you wonder what’s really going on.
Which brings me back to this Twitter thread. I guess I should take a second here to point out that I’m aware that a Twitter thread should absolutely not be taken as sufficient evidence to try and prove or disprove something. Some of those stories on that thread were so horrifying they were either completely fabricated, or, if in fact true, even more horrifying. But what it did do was add to the rumblings about Ellen and how she might be nowhere near this perfect, God-like icon we’ve built her up to be.
This prompted me to do some more research on Ellen, which this time led me to Buzzfeed. Again, I realize Buzzfeed might not be the best place to dig up your news (although it’s a great place to find out which iconic “Drag Race” Lip Sync you are – I’m “So Emotional” in case you were wondering), but I stumbled upon a really interesting piece written by a writer and editor by the name of Shannon Keating. In her piece, she questions Ellen’s place as a gay icon in our world today by challenging her on the notion of ‘relatability’. At one point, she writes: “But acceptance of LGBT people has also rarely extended beyond the bounds of the sort of gay person Ellen represents: white, wealthy, desexualized, monogamous; neutered and relatively nonthreatening. And acceptance… is, for some, losing its luster at a time when assimilating queer people into an anti-queer mainstream seems increasingly like settling for the straight world’s scraps.” The article as a whole came from an interesting perspective – one that felt new to me – and is absolutely worth a read, but this line in particular resonated with me the most.
I am not here to write an essay about how problematic I think Ellen DeGeneres is, or a case for why she should be the latest victim of cancel culture. For all we know Mariah Carey agreed to the pregnancy/drinking incident beforehand and Ellen is in fact the Saint she’s been billed as. Or maybe she’s a real-life Marvel supervillain and the hype is crap. I don’t know, and that’s frankly not something I’m overly concerned with. Instead, I want to share how this experience opened up my eyes to the abundance of ways in which heterosexuality dominates the world around us, even in ways that I may not have initially realized. This surely sounds naïve, so bear with me. Yes, we have seen tremendous progress for the LGBTQ+ community over the past several decades, and even in the last few years alone. I don’t have the time or space to go over all of these tremendous accomplishments, but despite all this, we continue to live in a heteronormalized world in which gay spaces still feel entirely distinct and separate from the world around us.
The case of Ellen has made me consider the acceptance of homosexuality and sense of tolerance that has been bestowed upon the gay community. But I’m not sure if acceptance is really the right word to use. Rather, it might sadly be a case of what is deemed allowed or tolerable by heterosexual people. Ellen was an easy choice for a gay icon because straight people were comfortable with the kind of gay she presented. Her homosexuality was easy for people to digest without pushing the boundary too far. But can you imagine if she had come out and was more than ‘just gay’? Do we really think Ellen would have been as idolized as she is today if she had, for example, come out as transgender and waged war against the Bush regime? Of course, we now know the latter wouldn’t have happened based on who she watches Dallas Cowboys games with, but that’s beside the point. What I’m trying to get at is that despite decades of progress and a heightened visibility for the LGBTQ+ community, it still feels like we are stuck in a vacuum, where escape can only stem from a fight to ensure that all identities are not only equally visible, but equally accepted, too.
On the one hand, my reflections might just be stating the obvious. Precisely the issue here is the very nature of something like transphobia, or perhaps a general lack of acceptance for other sexual identities that fall under the queer umbrella. That our society has come as far to be generally OK with people who are gay, but the minute gender identities enter the equation, heterosexuality refuses to look any further and goes on the defensive. Ellen DeGeneres would not have been accepted as a gay icon if stout defenders of the heterosexual status quo could have found a way to suggest that she would be a predator in the “wrong” bathroom, as an example. But it’s not just a matter of being gay or a less visible queer identity. It also comes down to how being gay is perceived. It’s OK to be gay if you’re monogamous and don’t “flaunt your sexuality” in people’s faces, as the saying goes. The result is an enormous spectrum of sexuality being condensed into one very tiny version of homosexuality that has been deemed tolerable, arguably because it is the one version of queerness that is the least threatening to heteronormativity.
This whole exercise has meant to be reflective for myself, but hopefully as well for anyone who is even remotely like me. I’m a cis-gender, white, homosexual male. With this comes a tremendous amount of privilege despite some of the obstacles I have had to overcome as someone who is gay. But sheesh, I guess in many ways I should feel pretty lucky that I generally fit the type of gay that allows me to navigate our heterosexual world with little disruption to the status quo. My three job promotions in the span of two and a half years might not have been so easy if my queerness was anything other than easy to comprehend. Or my family might not be quite so accepting of me if my homosexuality didn’t fit so seamlessly into a brand of gay that they had already slowly grown accustomed to, thanks to people like Ellen. And in case you’re wondering, it didn’t take a Twitter thread at midnight to discover that I carry more privilege than someone who is transgender, bisexual, pansexual, gender fluid, or anything else outside of plain ol’ gay (and white and male, for that matter). Rather, it’s given me more clarity on where exactly this privilege comes from and why it exists as so. Despite a growing acceptance for LGBTQ+ as a whole, many minorities within the community still struggle to find their footing in our everyday lives because of how constricting outsiders’ perspective has become of what gay really is.
Let’s be clear: people like myself owe a huge gratitude to people like Ellen. But people like myself also owe it to other members of the queer community to do better than to be complacent in this basic shape of gay we’ve been gifted. There’s no sense throwing out terms like LGBTQ+ and equality if you’re going to cower in the most visible letter of that acronym and try to camouflage in society as if you’re just another straight person who happens to have sex with people of the same sex. We are at a crucial point in our history where we need to work even harder, not to please straight people, but to continually challenge and deconstruct the notion they have created of the ‘right kind’ of gay. We need to do better to ensure that everyone around us is comfortable with every single letter in the ever-growing LGBTQ+ acronym, and not let certain gender and sexual identities sit on the sideline while the more visible people get to pander to both sides of the aisle.
As I sit here currently amidst a global pandemic and an increasingly visible amount of activism relating to Black Lives Matter, I think these feelings of guilt and self-reflection are more relevant than ever before. In a way, we have all been forced into boxes right now by being told to stay home and stay away from basically any form of human interaction. Though not quite the same, it channels the way that the world around us has tried to force queer people into boxes for as long as we can remember. We now live in a world where you’re allowed to be gay, just don’t be too gay. And if that’s the case, I think it’s time to cast aside the Ellens of pop culture and replace them with gay icons who, quite frankly, will make people uncomfortable and will present them with a type of queerness that is new and uneasy. Only then will we create an honest place for all identities, and not just the ones that are most visible and most self-serving to the heteronormative world we are constantly trying to navigate.