Arts & Pop Culture

Ellen Page: The Debated Bravery of Coming Out

By ANNA BRENNER

This past Valentine’s Day, Ellen Page stepped out in front of hundreds of young people at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s inaugural Time to THRIVE conference and, after eight minutes of encouraging words and charmingly awkward weight shifting, told them why she was really there.

“I’m here today because I am gay,” she said, the audience erupting into applause. “And because maybe I can make a difference to help others have an easier and more hopeful time.”

As pretty much the whole world knows by now, Page was not the first celebrity to come out this year, nor the last. College football star Michael Sam preceded her announcement with his own by only five days and, most recently, Tyler Glenn, the Neon Trees frontman, came out in a Rolling Stone article that hit the presses on March 28th. And she certainly wasn’t the first star—let alone Hollywood actress—to get real about her sexuality. So why did her announcement create such a stir? And did it even really matter?[1]

Many websites, blogs, and online commenters alike asked that very same question and for every Daily Beast (“Ellen Page Comes Out As Gay in Beautiful Speech at Human Rights Campaign Foundation Conference”), there seemed to be a Time magazine (“Ellen Page: Is Coming Out Really Still ‘Brave’?”).

Thelonia Saunders / Kitsch Art Editor

Thelonia Saunders / Kitsch Art Editor

In Brandon Ambrosino’s Time article, he agreed that it’s “great to hear a celebrity speak so authentically about dealing with and overcoming pain,” but questioned the bravery of Page’s “announc[ing] to a room full of LGBT youth, at an event sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, that she, a popular and well-to-do Hollywood 20-something, was gay.” Juxtaposed with Michael Sam, the NFL hopeful whose announcement has lead to “a chance he won’t be drafted now,” Page’s coming out seemed like small potatoes to Ambrosino. After all, she didn’t stand to have her career ruined; at worst, “it is possible that some ignorant producer might not cast her in a particular part out of fear that she can no longer ‘play straight.’”

Even Sam’s announcement was met, in part, with eye rolls. Comments on Will Leitch’s New York Magazine article “Jason Collins and Michael Sam Are Heroes and, More Importantly, Forefathers” veered from dismissive (“*if this were 1963 instead of 2014, maybe. Gay is as mainstream as light beer,” and “Sam has yet to prove himself…He’s no hero. He’s a guy who plays ball well and labels himself gay”) to downright hurtful (“The continued feminization of pro sports” and “There is nothing heroic about sexual deviance”). The existence of those last two comments alone only proves just how far we are from living in a society where being gay actually doesn’t matter and, while it’s great that people want to believe we now live in a world where everyone and your mother is gay (okay, maybe not your mother), it just honestly isn’t true. As Leitch writes, “All this matters. It matters so much. Which means it’s time for the next time. It’s time to make it really not matter at all.”

Since being gay—and coming out as such—still does matter to society, it makes perfect sense that it matters also to the gays who have yet to come out, in both how they choose to present themselves to others and in how others choose to view them. Tegan Quinn, half of the queer, indie rock-goddess duo Tegan and Sara, might have said it best in an interview with the Huffington Post post-Ellen Page’s HRCF speech: “We know lots of people who are struggling with how to come out. Do I come out, what’s mine, what’s private, what’s public?” She continues: “[We] have certainly been there to listen to and sort of nurture this idea that you can come out and it’s okay.” Thus, to her, what Page did both “will make her a happier person” and was “incredibly brave,” as it “told a whole generation of people that it’s okay to be out.”

This past Valentine’s Day, I checked Facebook one last time before shutting my phone off and going to bed. And then I saw it: a link from Variety with the headline, “Ellen Page Comes Out As Gay: ‘I’m Tired of Hiding.’” I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Same headline. Then, I laughed.

I laughed because, ever since Juno came out, people have told me I look and sound and act “just like Ellen Page.” My friends told me. Boys told me, typically when they were trying to hit on me. Even my aunt told me. And, just when I thought that maybe I had outgrown the comparison or the Juno craze had died down sufficiently, there was one of the first friends I made at the Hangar Theatre last summer running up to me in the hallway because she had finally figured out who I reminded her of.

“Who?” I asked, thinking that she was going to mention a friend from home, or a cousin, or something else entirely.

“Ellen Page!” she announced.

All these thoughts rushed through my head as I sat on the floor of my childhood bedroom and watched all eight minutes of that speech. All the head nods, all the gesticulations—and yes, especially that awkward, hands-in-the-pockets weight shifting—were me. Or at least something a lot like me. Creepily, a hell of a lot like me.

And when she said those three words that sent the entire audience into a rapture of applause, something within me released.

For years, I have been struggling with my sexuality. I’d say “had,” but if we’re being honest here, it’s an ongoing process, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever truly figure it out—and that’s okay. I know that I like girls and I know that, in the past, I’ve also liked guys—although if you asked me to name the last five people I liked, all the names would be feminine and most would end in the letter “a” (go figure). When I came to college and the topic of my sexual orientation came up, I would just say I was “not straight;” when people asked if that meant I was bisexual, I would say “yeah, sure, I guess.”

But I, too, was tired of hiding—or, at least, of “lying by omission.” So, when Ellen Page got out there in front of hundreds of LGBTQ teens and said, “I am gay,” I felt almost as if I were watching myself up there, announcing it to the world. And when they broke into applause—well, it felt a lot like they were clapping for the both of us.

So yes, it is 2014, not 1963. Yes, much of the entertainment industry is gay and many celebrities are out. But Ellen Page never claimed to be original, or unprecedented, or even a hero. She just wanted to make a difference.

And, while I can’t speak for everyone, for this tiny American chick, she did.

[1] To people besides all the queer ladies who want to sleep with her. Highlights from my Facebook newsfeed that night include: “irrationally excited ellen page came out bc I thought it would increase my chances of dating her #okself.” But that’s another story.

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