I think we all agree that Ellen Page’s much lauded coming out speech at the HRC Gala this past Valentines Day was poetic, sob-inducing and a huge fucking deal but very little has been said about the parallels between her coming out and that of the other Ellen, Ellen “Yep, I’m Gay” DeGeneres. In case you’ve forgotten (how can be?) or it was before your time (STOP MAKING ME FEEL OLD), the landscape of lesbians within popular culture changed in 1997.
No stranger to being a comedic trailblazer, DeGeneres was the first female comedian to be invited over to Johnny Carson’s interview couch. From there, she continued to find commercial success, eventually landing the starring roll on Ellen where she earned four Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy nominations, a writing Emmy win, and three Golden Globe nods. Before Ross and Rachel, before Will and Grace, there was Ellen and the notorious Susan, the name that officially signaled DeGeneres’ coming out.
Corresponding with “The Puppy Episode” in which DeGeneres’ character, Ellen Morgan came out, Ellen herself came out on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show and on the cover of a 1997 issue of Time Magazine. The publicity found her everywhere, and while she wasn’t the first out celesbian, she was the most mainstream, having the most to lose and, in hindsight, the most to gain. Ellen Morgan became the first gay prime-time character, played by an openly gay actor and, in the time before the internet, hers was the only story loud enough to reach the most rural corners of the world.
It’s easy to forget with her current popularity that there was a time when coming out all but ended her career. What she did was a risk, and something that she wholeheartedly felt she had to do for herself. Since then, we have seen an evolution in the way lesbians are perceived within popular culture and, while it’s hasn’t been quick or complete, whatever advances that have been made are very much owed to the decision she made to stand up against what she felt was lying through omission some 17 years ago.
Cut to Valentine’s Day, 2014. “I’m tired of lying by omission,” Ellen Page said, moments before uttering the words few openly gay celebrities have actually said, “I’m gay.” Since then, Page’s revelation has produced a media frenzy, but back in 1997 when “Yep, I’m Gay” was on newsstands, Page was only 10, in her first role in the TV movie Pit Pony. Little did she know it would be the catalyst for her acting career, landing her the breakout roll as 14-year-old vigilante Hayley Stark in the film Hard Candy.
Since then, she’s quickly become a household name, starring in X-Men, getting an Oscar nomination for Juno, and captivating lady hearts in the cult classic, Whip-It. In the most surreal cross-section of their timelines, and our gay lives, Page recently went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about coming out, expressing gratitude to the legendary talk show host. When DeGeneres empathized with Page saying, “I know what a scary thing that is,” you could almost hear the cumulative lesbian brain being blown. Although still a scary thing, any edge that got Page up to that podium was due to DeGeneres.
“You did it in a time that was much harder and much scarier,” Page admitted to DeGeneres. And she’s right. Back in 1997, DeGeneres took a step into the unknown. She made the decision that she did not want to continue feel ashamed of who she was. She did it to give hope, to be a face for gay teens. She did it for herself and for any of her successors, including Ellen Page.
That’s not to take weight out of Page’s coming out. She is arguably the youngest and most famous actress to say, “I’m gay,” publically. Admitting she’d been scared to reveal her truth, she represents a large population of young queer girls. Like DeGeneres in the ’90s, Page decided that it was not something that she was going to live the rest of her life being ashamed of. She proved to be a pioneer in her own right, leading by example to make sure everyone gets to live in the open.
“I am here today because I am gay,” she admitted. “And because maybe I can make a difference to help others have an easier and more hopeful time. Regardless, for me, I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility.”
While her career isn’t facing the completely destruction that almost sent DeGeneres into early retirement, Page is experiencing similar roadblocks within her career. Fighting backlash from conservatives and the entertainment industry, DeGeneres was attacked for her show and lifestyle being “too gay.” Gone were her days of leading lady status as seen in 1996’s Mr. Wrong.
After coming out, Page was the first to admit that she won’t be up for a romantic lead any time soon. “I get more hate, honestly, about dressing androgynously than about being gay,” Page explained in her Hollywood Reporter interview. “It blows my mind.” Nearly two decades later, studio executives and critics are still able to perpetuate the continued homophobia that she and DeGeneres are fighting against.
With that, and in the wake of making what is very private very public in the name of example, both Ellen’s have found the ability to be 100% proud to be themselves. What DeGeneres did for an entire community, is the torch that Page continues to carry, saying, “I also do it selfishly, because I’m tired of hiding.” Which is precisely the sentiment that proves why, some 16 years later, publicly coming out is so important.
With advances being made in regards to equal rights, it’s easy to forget the struggle, but regardless of who you are, coming out is vital. DeGeneres and Page epitomized what the Human Rights Campaign promotes, “When people know someone who is LGBT, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other.”
They stood up, they used their notoriety to make their voice, our voice, heard and they served as a face for an issue that can often times seem all but solved. Coming out is about setting an example. It’s not just for the person doing it or the cause, it’s also for future generations, the people who need and want come out, but are scared. What Page and DeGeneres realized is that the only way to inspire change is to tell their stories. To be strong, to be proud and to be unapologetically who they are.