AfterEllen.com Huddle: Coming out and inspiring others

We’re lucky enough to live in a world where The New York Times thinks celebrities coming out as gay makes us shrug our shoulders or roll our eyes. I guess that means that being gay is no longer big news to some people, which, even if you disagree with that statement, can be a good thing. Being a lesbian is normal? I’ll hope that part of the argument is true, because for many people (myself included) it is.

So for this week’s Huddle, the topic was: Which public figure’s coming out had an impact on you? It didn’t have to be something inspiring — it could be something surprising, shocking, or something that angered you. So consider this when you think of your own answer to this question.

Ready, break!

Lindsey Byrnes: It was not an April Fool’s joke when wegiveadamn.org launched their LBGT equality campaign and Anna Paquin came out as a bisexual. This was truly newsworthy to many people, as no indication of Paquin’s bisexuality had been recorded or speculated in public.

From what I can tell, she personally had nothing to gain from dropping this truth-bomb on the world, except to be an inspiration and example to others. It was her announcement that the press has attributed to the overwhelming amount of visitors that the campaign’s website received, in just the first day of its launch. And by overwhelming, I mean over 2 million people logged on to the site causing it to crash.

Congratulations Anna, even though this year is not over you definitely have my vote for the “Awesome Outting of the Year.” Coming out in support of a good cause and making a difference — you have style and grace!

Grace Chu: I know she has been in a long term relationship with Brad Pitt, like, forever, but this doesn’t revoke Angelina Jolie‘s out queer woman card, because bisexual women are attracted to both sexes, mmmkay? I just wanted to get that out of the way first.

Anyway, I came out a couple of years after I graduated from college. I went to college during the 1990s. The lesbians in college commemorated their coming out by chopping off all their hair, butching up, and either joining a contact sports team, or joining the (damn near radical) queer organization on campus. None of this resonated with me, so my very sheltered adolescent mind concluded that lesbians were girls who wanted to be dudes and/or yelled a lot and made people like me feel stupid.

OK, put down your pitchforks — I was young, and there simply weren’t any visible
representations of out feminine queer women. Also, if you went to college in the Northeast in the P.C. 1990s, you’d understand. Finally, AfterEllen.com didn’t exist yet. It happens. Pitchforks. Down. Now.

Then, sometime in or around 2000 or so, I learned that Angelina Jolie was bisexual. I don’t remember how I found out, but it pretty much blew me away that a high profile Oscar winning super sexy feminine actress liked women. (Also, announcing that I thought she was hot was a safe way to come out, because everyone — men, women, puppies, tree frogs — thought she was hot.)

In any event, discovering that Angelina Jolie was queer changed my perceptions of queer women, and it helped me realize that queer women come in all flavors, and that you didn’t have to butch up to be queer. Now if only The L Word had been made in the 1990s, my world would have been rocked a lot earlier, and I would have not spent four years in Boston, the biggest college town in the world and therefore the land of plenty, with my head up my ass dating dudes and wondering was missing.

Trish Bendix: When Portia de Rossi came out, I felt strangely vindicated, like I could be gay and feminine and it wasn’t me trying to pass or pretend that I wasn’t a lesbian.

While in her first publicly-known lesbian relationship, she wasn’t so open to talking about it. But when she started dating Ellen DeGeneres, she didn’t really have a choice, and in 2005, she told Paper magazine: “If I told you I haven’t really thought about it, you probably wouldn’t believe me. [My sexuality is] a part of me that I really like. But it’s not the totality of me. It’s not a passion of mine to become political in any way, but I do think it’s important to see gay men and women having big careers and very full, rich lives.”

I remember reading that and feeling so happy that she’d come forward to talk about it. Portia was a lesbian and she really enjoyed that about herself. There wasn’t any “admitting” to being gay or “revealing” it as a secret — it was a a fact, and one she celebrated. I love that in her and in people like Cynthia Nixon and Wanda Sykes who say “I’m gay and I am psyched about it!” Because that’s how I feel, too.

Mia Jones: The celebrity coming out story that meant the most to me was definitely Ellen‘s. Now, before you say, “Duh”, there’s a little more of a backstory.

I was 18-years-old, had just come out to my family, most of whom said they had known since I was 6. I wish I could show you a picture of what I looked like back then because you’d probably think I was the cutest little boy ever. Well, my step mom hasn’t always been so open-minded. I made her watch Ellen’s interview with Diane Sawyer or Oprah or one of those talk show people, and she had the nerve to tell me that being gay was a choice. So, we argued and she ended up trying to ground me, basically, for being gay.

It was Ellen’s courage to come out and tell the world who she was that allowed me to laugh in my step mom’s face and walk out the door. Since that day, I am happy to say my stepmom is totally supportive of me being a big ol’ lesbo. She just wishes I’d choose a nice Jewish girl.

Lesley Goldberg: I know, right? Another Ellen response! But really, when she came out — personally as well as on her show — it was the “Yep, I’m gay” that truly helped me understand why visibility matters. I became more than the token gay on campus and in the newsroom; being out suddenly seemed easy and relatable to society at large. It was the first time I felt like I was part of a bigger team with a grand goal: equality.

Dara Nai: This is going to seem corny, considering I’m saying this on a website called AfterEllen.com, but when Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, it changed everything. She changed the way mainstream America perceived lesbians. She proved you could be out and still be ridic popular. She made it OK for people who are not in Aerosmith to wear sneakers on a red carpet.

Ellen kicked off the LGBT zeitgeist of the ’90s, hence Sarah Warn choosing “AfterEllen” as the name for this site. If Ellen had not come out when she did, Adam Lambert might just be the poor man’s Liberace and this site would be called something awful like WeHateEverything.com — and who wants to read that? The one million readers who visit AfterEllen every month would be forced to actually work all day.

Then again, The L Word might never have been made. Maybe instead of crediting Ellen, I should blame her.

Heather Hogan: You know those moments in life when you’re like, “Why, why, why don’t I have a time machine?!” That’s what I felt like when Jennifer Knapp came out. I grew up in the buckle of the Bible Belt, went to seminary, worked at a Baptist church for years and years of my life, led a mission team to the third world where I built schools and told people how Jesus loved them — and fell in love with a girl.

My world felt like it was happening in different compartments back then: the kissing a girl and liking it compartment, the church compartment, the career compartment. By the time Jennifer Knapp came out, I’d reconciled most of the areas of my life, but realizing that she was coming to terms with being gay while I was coming to terms with being gay while I was making out with a chick to her Lay It Down album? It kind of makes me dizzy to think about it, like a hall of mirrors. And it kind of feels like a retroactive hug. And if I had that time machine, I could save a stash of cash on therapy just by telling Little Heather Hogan that Jennifer Knapp is a lezzer too.

Karman Kregloe: Melissa Etheridge‘s first album came out around the same time I did, and I knew instinctively that she and I were on the same gay page. Was it the lack of gender-specific pronouns in her songs? The references to chrome? I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew she as a lesbian, and arguing with my straight friends about how I knew I was right was oddly exhilarating, satisfying, and fun. Especially when, years later, I was proven right. Although by then, I was much more comfortable with my identity, and some of those friends weren’t so straight anymore themselves!

In present time, just watching the Chely Wright interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show this week was a great reminder of where I started and how much coming out changes everything.

Now that I live in a big city that boasts a huge openly gay population with its own part of town (WeHo!) and I’m completely out to my very loving and supportive family, it is easy for me to take for granted the ease with which I move through the world in regards to my sexual orientation. Wright’s description of her pre-coming out existence brought back memories of being afraid to tell my high school friends, worrying that I would never find someone to spend my life with, and driving an hour to get to the closest gay bar then being terrified that the cop who harassed me in the parking lot was going to call my parents and tell them where he’d found me.

Wright’s recent coming out reminded me how important it is to be out and how it makes a huge difference (especially to younger people and those who live in small towns/isolated areas) when celebrities take that plunge and tell the truth. If a female celebrity like her — articulate, attractive, likeable — had done the same back when I was coming out, it would have blown my mind.

Your turn — who did it for you?

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