The actress's announcement should be celebrated, but so should the maturing society that received her news with a shrug
“I’m here today because I am gay …” With these words, Ellen Page came out.
“I am tired,” she continued, “of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission. I suffered for years because I was scared to be out. My spirit suffered, my mental health suffered and my relationships suffered. And I’m standing here today, with all of you, on the other side of all that pain.”
It’s great to hear a celebrity speak so authentically about dealing with and overcoming pain. Many LGBT people know quite well the debilitating fear of being “found out,” and, as Page mentioned, many do experience psychological anguish as a result. Page, then, serves as an example to those living with such pain: it is possible to work through it, and come out on the other side, both gay and gracious.
In spite of the many wonderful reasons to celebrate Page, I still can’t help wondering this: Was it brave of Page to announce 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?
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I use the word brave because many commentators, gay and straight, have been using it to describe Page’s decision. Fair enough. Though we have made great progress over the past few years, we can’t deny that the LGBT community still faces routine discrimination in ways that straight people do not. But there’s also a part of me that hesitates to use the word brave.
Last week, Michael Sam acknowledged he was gay. As an NFL hopeful, Sam’s announcement took a great deal of bravery since, as everyone knows, there’s a chance he won’t be drafted now. But how will Page’s coming out affect her career? It’s unlikely that she will never find work again, although 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.” But while that producer would be among a minority in his industry, it seems fair to suggest that such attitudes might be more at home among NFL check signers. (Of course, there was a time when that Hollywood producer wasn’t among a minority in his industry, which meant coming out did require bravery. For instance, one year after Ellen DeGeneres announced she was gay, her award-winning sitcom was canceled.)
But perhaps it isn’t fair to rank coming-outs as harder or easier. After all, as much as we pretend otherwise on Twitter, most of us are unfamiliar with the minutiae of celebrities’ lives. Maybe Page’s granny just disowned her for coming out? On the other hand, maybe Sam’s granny just took him out for Cosmos to celebrate? The point is, we don’t know the factors each gay person has to consider: we don’t have emotional access to her closet.
At the same time, we do know this: the world is changing when it comes to LGBT issues. As one gay friend cheekily wrote on Twitter when he heard Page’s news: “Isn’t everybody gay today?” Obviously, that was his hyperbolic way of asking if a celebrity coming-out in 2014 should be treated like some sort of cultural novelty.
Of course, one anticipates the rebuttal: But what about Uganda? What about Russia? Yes, there is still work to be done. We must continue to strive for justice wherever it is denied. But we need to be honest about acknowledging how far we’ve come. One violent setback doesn’t undo all the good we’ve achieved. Similarly, admitting that coming out doesn’t require the copious amounts of bravery that it used to, doesn’t somehow let Russia off the hook, or deny that homophobia is still a problem. It’s to our account that we’ve evolved into a society where vast numbers of gay people can feel free to be themselves: our activism would do well to acknowledge this fact.
I don’t take issue with the word brave being used at times of people who come out. As I’ve mentioned, coming out most certainly is brave in some contexts — say, a 16-year-old quarterback in Texas. But to praise each coming-out gay person for her courage and bravery doesn’t really reflect the progress that we’ve made in recent years.
Should Page’s announcement be celebrated? Absolutely! But we should also find ways to celebrate the maturing society that received her news.
Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer based in Baltimore.