Why You Should Care That Ellen Page Came Out

February 22, 2014 12:30 pm

I often forget, cocooned as I am in my network of queer blogs and websites, that not everybody has the same reaction to a celebrity coming out as I do. Obviously, I don’t mean those who dwell on the extremely conservative right, every positive mention of the LGBTQ+ community in the media seen as an attack on morality, tradition, and ‘family values’. The day we share an opinion on anything to do with the community, please send somebody to my house, as I will most likely have passed from shock.

 No, here I am referring to the so-called ‘general public’, those without a strong opinion on the topic, who respond in a variety of different ways to celebrities publicly coming out. This was particularly apparent over the course of Valentine’s weekend, following Ellen Page’s declaration that she is gay during a speech to the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference on February 14th.

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 While my social media feeds were filled with naught but congratulations and praise for the actress, the rest of the internet once again devolved into a forum for the world to debate how it felt about such a personal statement, albeit one given very publicly.  

 However, there were two opinions that seemed to float around more than the rest, rising above the babble of genuine (if misplaced) concerns for Ellen’s career and men lamenting the loss of chances they apparently had with her: “I called it”, and “who cares?”.

The problems with the former can be addressed fairly easily. I, along with many other queer people, have often received such a response upon coming out, yet it seems people fail to appreciate that such a statement can be rather problematic. Some undoubtedly mean it as a form of comfort; it’s an attempt to reassure their friend or family member that they needn’t fear rejection, verbal shorthand for “hey, I knew all along and am perfectly comfortable with that knowledge!”.

God knows, it can be difficult at times to respond to important, emotional revelations. Yet, phrases such as these threaten to remove a queer individual’s agency, to devalue the (sometimes emotionally fraught) process of self-identification through which they have progressed.

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Coming out can be a big event for queer individuals and responses such as “I knew it”, can come across as rather dismissive. Just because they are aimed at a famous actress, rather than your best friend, doesn’t make them any less negative. I wanted to wrap Ellen in a giant hug when she spoke of the emotional and mental toll being closeted had taken on her, when she trembled as she voiced the words “I am gay”.

This was clearly a hugely intimidating and hugely important moment for Ellen, and for thousands upon thousands of people to say how they had already known brushes off the journey she has taken to reach a point where she feels able to talk about her sexuality publicly.

Of course, there is the other glaring problem with phrases such as ‘I knew it’ – how the hell did you know? What made you look at Ellen and decide that she was most definitely gay? What gave it away about me? Either Nick Fury should be contacting you because you have developed an ability to delve into my mind and see all my not-so-repressed thoughts about kissing girls, or you’re buying into a stereotype about what ‘gay’ looks like.

I know, life would be easier if we had some sort of warning device, an alarm perhaps, but unfortunately the only way to be sure of a person’s sexuality without them telling you is if they have it tattooed across their forehead. Sure, I do have my suspicions about certain celebrities (and only some of them are motivated by wishful thinking…), but even if any of them were to come out, I would not crow about how I had “known all along”.

But as for the latter response, if “I knew it” can be perceived as being dismissive, then ‘who cares?’ is a whole level up. How many of us have dropped that phrase in the middle of argument, or used it in conversation to show how little bearing something has upon our, evidently vastly more important, lives?

It’s rude at the best of times; yet questioning who cares when someone comes out diminishes the importance of that declaration in much the same way as claiming a prior knowledge does. Everybody has had experience of being belittled, of being told that something they considered to be important is actually trivial, and knows how awful that feels. So why is it okay to dismiss the importance of someone coming out?

Michael Sam – not much of a stereotype, is he?

Not everyone has interpreted this response in the same way I have. TIME ran an interesting article on their website, suggesting that the “who cares?” theme is a sign of how far society at large has come, how declarations such as Ellen’s are no longer seen as controversial. I don’t want to call out the author as wrong, but surely the very fact that we have to come out suggests this is still an issue.

The liberal media may not view queerness as something about which to be alarmed, but one only needs to look at the waves made by Michael Sam, the University of Missouri American football player who has recently come out, to see that it very much is still an issue.

While I did not take a survey, it did appear that the overwhelming majority of those who posted comments questioning who cares were straight. Indeed, many accompanied their queries with ridiculous comments either about they were ‘coming out as straight’ or how straight people don’t come out so why to queer people ‘make a fuss’.

A few years ago, comments such as these probably would have elicited some form of anger in me, but I have learnt to save my ire for bigger battles; now, I just wanted to pat them on the head and tell that they had missed the point entirely. We live in a society where you are assumed straight until proven otherwise; you don’t have to ‘come out as straight’ because the vast majority take it as a pre-established fact that you are.

It’s called heteronormativity and it sucks, yet unfortunately it is something which is very much present within our society. When a public figure comes out, they counter this tendency to assume everyone is heterosexual. Ellen said herself that she was tired of ‘lying by omission’; by not actively stating that she wasn’t, people just assumed that she was straight. Even I’m guilty of it, so every person that kicks open that closet door helps.

The media continues to exert an image of heteronormativity, where homosexuality is cast aside and considered 'abnormal'

The media continues to exert an image of heteronormativity, where homosexuality is cast aside and considered ‘abnormal’

Also, to the straight people who question why Ellen coming out is important, I would just like to say that she did not come out for you. If she came out for anyone (besides herself, obviously), it was queer people, queer kids especially. While more people have been coming out recently, there is a startling lack of high profile queer figures in the media industry and consequently very few queer role models to whom the youth can look.

You know they must be there because the statistics tell you so. You know they must exist because you exist, yet you can’t see them. You start to question everything. Maybe they really don’t exist, maybe nobody else feels like you do because you should not feel like this.

Maybe they do exist, but know that feeling like this is something to be ashamed of, and thus they keep it hidden. Celebrities telling people they are queer is important (though by no means obligatory – I don’t mean to imply that everyone has to come out) because it normalises queerness.

I’m not for a second trying to claim that queer kids can only have queer individuals for role models. Of course not. That would be as insane as claiming boys can’t find women inspirational. Yet there is a special comfort in seeing people like you living the glamorous lives of musicians and movie stars.

A Heat-sponsored  ‘It Gets Better’, I suppose. So if there is even one Juno-loving teenager out there who is ashamed of their sexuality but has drawn comfort from Ellen’s words, then that is why it is important. That is why we celebrate people coming out, that is why celebrities doing so is reported as news.

It might not have helped you, but Ellen Page coming out helped somebody, and that is why you should care.

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  • Steph

    Really really liked the article., however, (playing devil’s advocate here) how can we ask to be equal when the LGBT community itself makes such a big deal about it. Don’t you think the day no comments, news etc are made is the day we’re truly equal?

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