24 April 2012

Outings: From Mike Wallace To Ellen De Generes

Today, when you mention Ellen De Generes' name, people think of her talk show and Cover Girl commercials.  Some still recall her season as a judge on American Idol, in which she replaced Paula Abdul.

But I can't recall the last time I heard anyone refer to her sexual orientation.  I take that back: I am remembering the time she hosted the Academy Awards show in 2001.  It had been postponed twice in the wake of the 11 September attacks over CBS networks' concerns that a lavish show so soon after the tragedy would appear insensitive.  Finally, in November, it aired, after its producers and Ellen realized that it would need a more somber tone that would still take viewers' minds off the tragedy, if only momentarily. Her performance, which brought her several standing ovations, included her now-famous line, "What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a pantsuit surrounded by Jews?"

It's hard to believe that only four years before that, in February of 1997,she caused a stir when she revealed her sexual orientation on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Two months later, on 30 April, her title character on her sitcom Ellen "came out" to a therapist played by Oprah. Ellen's viewership declined after that, and the show was canceled after the following season.  

So, only a decade and a half ago, Ellen risked her career by revealing, ironically, something that many people had already known, and many more had suspected, about her.  Still, her situation was better than that faced by some of the first gay people to appear on network television.  Three decades before Ellen's disclosure, when gay characters appeared on television series, they were almost always jealous, devious characters, or they lived in the fear of being blackmailed because of their orientation.  Lesbians and transgenders were hardly mentioned at all; the latter were likely to be conflated with transvestites.

In 1967, Americans were already getting much of what they knew (and believed) about a wide variety of topics from television.  In such an environment, a documentary about a controversial topic--as homosexuality was, and still is in some quarters--was bound to incite strong reactions.  It was in that milieu that, on 7 March of that year, an episode of CBS Reports on the topic would air.  The recently-deceased Mike Wallace hosted it.   

The program included interviews with several gay men, pyschiatrists, legal experts and academics.  Some of the gay men were shown in shadow or with their faces behind potted plants; some went by pseudonyms.  In fairness to Wallace, he presented some of the more pro-gay comments, not only from the gay men themselves, but from a Federal judge who suggested that the United States ought to re-examine its laws on homosexuality.  Wallace himself also discussed some of the legal aspects of homosexuality and noted that England was preparing to de-criminalize homosexual acts.  

However, Wallace undercut all of that with his own disparaging commentary of homosexuality, most of which echoed the prevailing notions of devious promiscuous gay men and most of the medical and psychiatric community's view of homosexuality as a mental illness or pathology.  (As late as 1995, he said that gays "could change their orientation if they really wanted to.")  

The result is--well, that depends on who you listen to.  At the time, the New York Times, Washington Star and Chicago Daily News praised the show simply for bringing up the issue. The Chicago Tribune and others trashed it for the very same reason.  A small minority--including George Gent of the New York Times--criticized the anti-gay bias of the show.  History has been less kind to it; in his 2003 book Unmasking the Truth:  Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, LGBT activist Wayne Besen called the broadcast "the single most destructive hour of anti-gay propaganda in our nation's history."

There were no Cover Girl--or any other--commercials for anyone involved with the broadcast.  In fact, there were no advertisements of any kind on the broadcast:  No sponsor of the network's other shows wanted to be associated with a topic that was considered taboo.  Instead, the "commercial breaks" were filled with public service announcements from the Peace Corps and the Internal Revenue Service.  And one of the gay men Wallace interviewed lost his job after his identity was revealed. 

At least Ellen's career rebounded--or, I should say, took a new and more interesting direction--after the backlash against her "coming out."