Living in the happy homo-bubble we do here at /bent can blinker you a bit. Don’t get me wrong, we are under zero illusions about the various struggles and bullshit violence faced by LGBT people the world over. A continued lack of tolerance, representation and respect is part of the reason we started this blog. But honestly, is there a queer out there who expected anyone to question Ellen Page’s faultless Valentines gift? And yet, ugh, of course they did. From outright hostility to lazy dismissiveness, it seems some people are not quite getting it. So here are our five reasons why it mattered. Critics begone! Leave us to bask unassailed in Ellen’s articulate fabulosity!
1. We need real-life representation
The LGBT community needs representation on film and TV, but we also need it in real life. To reverse bell hooks’ aphorism, we need to maintain the link from reel to real. It’s no good if LGBT is something people can play but never actually be. The more diverse an array of people living openly, the more likely it is that someone, somewhere will feel they have an ally if things are tough. And the more likely it is that being queer will cease to be something that provokes intolerance. For many people, seeing a person they admire own the thing that makes them anxious – in this case, sexuality – can be a really big deal.
I remember, for example, scurrying furtively into my local DVD store to buy the first season of “The L Word.” I also picked up a couple seasons of “Friends”, between which I slipped the blaring evidence of my unfurling lesbianity (seriously!). At the check-out I feigned surprise and benignly agreed to buy this odd show I’d obviously swept up accidentally. My point is, so desperate was I to see anything of this thing I knew myself to be, and so anxious was I of how I would be judged, that I went through that mad charade. The slightest hint of someone famous being a bit queer would prompt forensic Googling, not because I was a gossip-fiend, but because I was desperate to know if k. d. lang really was the only other gay in the village. It’s hard to imagine that now, but I have no doubts that had my 21 year-old self seen Ellen Page’s speech, she would have felt all the relief the opening credits of the L-word – with all bar one of its initial female cast identifying as straight – didn’t quite bring.
2. It’s part of a new emphasis on solidarity in celebrity engagement
Laverne Cox was one of the people Page cited as inspiration in her speech. Cox herself gave a rousing talk at The Creating Change conference a few weeks ago. Like Laverne, Ellen was also super poised and articulate, which is great because seriously there is nothing hotter than a wordsmith. But there’s another similarity. In each of her public appearances as an advocate for the trans community Cox always trains her focus on the movement rather than on her particular place within it: she name-checks those working tirelessly, often without adequate funding, she highlights the lived experiences of individuals without her platform and she refuses to let these stories go unheard. We got a similar emphasis from Ellen Page. Her speech is being called a “coming-out”, and obviously it was that, but it was also so much more. It was a far less subjective enterprise. Deeply personal, certainly, but not without an eye to the wider community, their struggles and to the “people who make it their life’s work to make other people’s lives better”. We need celebrities coming out, but we also need all of the countless individuals working as they do. This is because…
3. Intolerance is an issue everywhere, not just in Sochi
I’m so bored of the argument that a celebrity coming out “isn’t news”. Mainly because that’s not actually an argument, it’s a statement, and it’s one based on deep ignorance of the situation of so many LGBT people. No one is suggesting that Ellen Page saying she’s gay is on a par with the protests in Kiev, Bangkok and Papua New Guinea. But you know, it’s also impossible to argue that it’s uncontroversial or easy to be LGBT in the world. It’s not in Uganda but neither is it in England or New York City. To ask “isn’t everyone gay today?” is only to reveal that you live in more of an isolated queer bubble than we do. So let’s please not pretend that we don’t need, with some urgency, to find ways of helping people to recognise, accept and celebrate their differences, as Audre Lorde (and Dale Hansen) put it. This being so, I delight in high-profile people willing to discuss their sexuality publicly and willing to challenge the prejudices and misperceptions that continue to make some LGBT lives so unnecessarily miserable. I’m with Ellen Page in thinking that the more we talk about being LGBT openly, the stronger our community is, and the stronger our hope of making the world a much better place in which to be.
On which note, it’s worth pointing out that of all the places it’s controversial to be openly queer, Hollywood remains a hotbed. That is, I should qualify, if you’re a wannabe leading woman or man. The people suggesting that Ellen Page might not have been brave for discussing her sexuality don’t quite know what to do with the fact that Ellen DeGeneres had her show cancelled soon after coming out. “That was years ago!”, they exclaim. And yet, it was only 16 years ago. How many famous Hollywood actors and actresses are out since then? How on earth did “Brokeback” Mountain miss out on its Oscar? Was Rupert Everett really barking up the wrong tree when he advised young gay actors not to come out? Are people wrong to speculate that Jodie Foster would not have had the same career had she come out? Why do actors known to be queer refuse to allow this to go public? This is the gauntlet a young gay actor runs, which in itself makes it brave. But also, risk is about so much more than economics, or a career: risk is also about the simple fact of making yourself vulnerable to millions of people. In giving such a personal, thoughtful, and ultimately revealing speech, Ellen Page was brave, no doubt about it, and it’s a bravery from which we all benefit.
5. Solidarity matters
Oppression makes friends with oppression. People get treated like shit every day for no reason. This is true if you are gay or trans, but it’s also true if you don’t like what people want you to like, or look how they think you should. Hell, I got shit for being British in an American school, which at its best meant being asked to say ‘tomato’ fifteen times a day. In recognising the deleterious effects of pervasive stereotypes and crushing standards, Page implicitly included in her speech not just put-upon queer kids, but all those who deal with the weight of prejudice and normative expectations. We need straight allies and they need us; our experiences of prejudice and the communities we’ve developed to cope with prejudice can and should help them too. Our basic message is ‘don’t be an asshole’, and plenty of non-queer people could benefit from that. As Page put it at one point “all of us can do so much more together than any one person can do alone”. Absolutely.