Sunday, April 13, 1997
Will we let the real
Ellen into our lives?


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

We made Ellen DeGeneres what she is today. So, what happens to her next?

Today, she is a 39-year-old woman looking out from the newsstand, saying, ''Yep. I'm gay.'' Well, she wouldn't have said that if the question hadn't been asked. And the question wouldn't have been asked if we hadn't already known the answer.

Time magazine got the exclusive ''confession,'' but Newsweek stripped a bright yellow banner over its logo announcing ''The outing of Ellen.'' Not TV Guide, not People magazine, but the two most important news magazines in the country.

That's because this story has very little to do with television or show business and everything to do with real life.

Acceptable pretense

If Suddenly Susan's Brooke Shields, who also has relationship problems on her show, had floated the notion of ''discovering'' her character's lesbianism, it would have been no big deal. Brooke might even have gotten face time on talk shows that otherwise wouldn't have her on a plate.

Gay and lesbian activists would have stepped forward to kibitz. Provided that Brooke kept the bedroom door closed, the noise would have been modest. Even from the pulpits.

Billy Crystal was an excruciatingly well-adjusted gay man in prime time on Soap several years ago. Everybody on the show was squirrelly, except for his character. More important, we all knew that he's married with children ''in real life.''

Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas were adorable and acceptable as a gay couple in Philadelphia. First of all, because the closest they got to a clinch was a slow dance (no dipping, please), and second because Tom Hanks is straight and Mr. Banderas is not only straight but studly.

The uproar isn't because this is the first mainstream show with a central character who's gay. It's because this is the first show about a lesbian, starring a lesbian. A likable, funny, real person.

How dangerous is that?

Critics will no doubt argue that she is a bad role model for children, as if Ellen will now inspire a generation of lesbians. Much is still to be discovered about sexual orientation, but most experts would agree that seeing a sympathetic portrayal of a gay woman will not turn your 14-year-old daughter into a lesbian.

If she's already a lesbian, however, it might keep her from feeling worthless and alone.

There is a reason that Coming Out With Ellen parties are being planned for April 30. The Human Rights Campaign, a gay political lobbying group based in Washington, has received more than 1,300 requests for its party kit. They are looking for affirmation, not recruits.

The long tease

Almost nothing about the April 30 episode and Ms. DeGeneres' personal revelation is news, of course. It started with a long tease about the sitcom character. The nerdy, hapless Ellen Morgan of television was almost certainly going to be outed this season.

It would have been incredibly cheesy if Ellen DeGeneres had not been by her side. Unnatural, you might say.

Will her show become a weekly visit to a gay bar? Unlikely. Her schtick has always been more Mary Tyler Moore than Sandra Bernhard. Perhaps the point can be firmly and finally made that sexual orientation is simply part of who we are - as is gender, as is race, as is religion. It's important. But it's not everything. Bill Cosby chose to make his comedy more about family than about race. And Truman Capote's In Cold Blood has never been described as a gay novel.

So, today's question has been asked and answered. Ellen Morgan is gay. Ellen DeGeneres is gay. Tomorrow's questions will be answered in Norwood and Oakley and Monfort Heights and Evendale and Fort Thomas - places coastal sophisticates sneeringly call ''flyover country.''

Will we now notice that maybe Ellen is not the only one in our life who is gay? That being gay is more than a movie of the week? We loved Tom and Billy and Antonio. Can we love a real person?

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

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