The night Ellen DeGeneres--or 'Degenerate' as she was lovingly called by certain television evangelists and elegant wordsmiths--leaned into a microphone and announced to a disinterested airplane terminal that she was gay, I was alone in my room. There was a TV. There was a bed. There was a closed door. A few books and magazines on the floor. An open window, which I occasionally leaned out of in order to smoke during commercials.
In 1997, having lived for a while in dorms and apartments, I'd moved in with my recently divorced father. Both of us were more or less directionless at the time--1997 wasn't a very pleasant year--and we each kept to ourselves, as if avoiding conversation would in some way conceal the possibility of failure and the reality of loss.
I was 23. I'd dropped out of two colleges in two different states. My days were mostly media-filled, in that I read a lot, listened to NPR and radio talk shows, watched CNN, spoke little, and cared less. While I'd had a boyfriend in high school, most relationships were via the internet, with an occasional clandestine hook-up here and there, usually ending in embarrassment or shame.
It wasn't that I was depressed, or that I thought of myself as depressed then. Certainly looking back on that period of my life it does seem a depressing existence. Possibly in 20 years, looking back on my current life, I will say the same thing--"It wasn't that I was depressed, or that I thought of myself of depressed then." My current life at 43 is so removed from my life at 23, both emotionally and geographically, that I cannot even guess what my life at 63 may be. If I could return now to that bedroom the night The Puppy Episode aired, and watch it with my 23 year-old self, I don't think I would.
The one constant trait stretching from 23 to 43 is that I've maintained existential angst.
Anyway, my steady diet of media had prepared me for Ellen Degenerate's reveal: Yup, she's gay. I knew this. In two years, I would meet the man who would, quite improbably, become my husband; a few years later, I would force us to move to NYC, and we would eventually get a dog, and would--no pun intended--embark on a shared journey of our own. But in 1997, at least for me, everything seemed paused. I was living in my father's house. My father hadn't yet met the woman who would become my step-mother. My mother was dating the man who would become my step-dad. My little brother, 18 years my junior, was still trying to make sense of a divorce he didn't see coming, not realizing his older brother (me) had spent years expecting it.
In the pauses of life--and not to be too poetic here--there are the changes.
So: Ellen. And 'Ellen'. I'd watched the show before, even though I was not a frequent viewer of sit-coms. As I said, I mostly leaned towards media-rich entertainment--in '97 I was into Bill Maher, MST3K, Dennis Miller, and All Things Considered. I liked indie films and indie comic books. I read Wired, and specially ordered books from the local bookstore. One can debate my level of assholetry, but I was dedicated to being different from most 23 year-old Alabamians living in a smallish town.
Jesus. Looking back now I'm amazed I met the husband, and was able to move to NYC, and find a dog that loves me.
Anyway. So 'Ellen,' the TV show, was on my radar because of the media hype surrounding the fourth season, where it was rumored she would reveal that both the character of Ellen Morgan and the comedian/actress Ellen DeGeneres were gay. I'd certainly seen Ellen DeG's stand-up. Was a fan. Loved stand-up comedy since I was too young to be watching Robin Williams live at the Met. The rumblings in the media, though, got me curious in the actual television show.
There's a line in The Puppy Episode about how Ellen--the character--unconsciously knew she was gay, and that her unconscious attempts to accept her homosexuality manifest as tiresome jokes. This of course was a meta-joke about how, over the course of that 4th season of 'Ellen', writers constructed gags and quick jokes playing off of the media's reporting of Ellen's big reveal. Thing is, watching that 4th season in real time, week to week, in my room, alone... It wasn't a tiresome gag. It was a process. Coming out is not a reveal, you see. It's a process.
A few weeks before The Puppy Episode aired, I'd met a guy online--on AOL because that's how long ago this happened--and spent the night with him. Not 'spent the night' as in had wild gay sex, but spent the night in the non-carnal sense. He picked me up, drove me to his home an hour out of town, made mixed drinks with ice and a blender, cooked me a wonderful dinner, and we talked. We watched a Bergman film. We made out. When the time came for sleep, we cuddled up to one another and... I faked sleep while he jerked off beside me. The next day, he wanted to go to brunch and I insisted he take me back home--I made up an excuse of being needed elsewhere, and we drove the hour back in silence.
Point is, I wasn't ready to be gay. All the instincts were there. But accepting the reality of homosexuality was too much. I'd always told myself if I find the right guy, THEN I'll do the coming-out thing. This was the right guy. But I still couldn't muster the courage, so rather than come out, I went inward.
Not a religious person at all, btw. I mean, I grew up in Alabama, so religion obviously stained my brain a bit. Even in elementary school, I was all about others being gay. But me? Too much work. Too difficult. I'd rather--then--be isolated and ashamed than who I am.
The night before The Puppy Episode, the guy IM'd me. He said he really liked me and wanted to hang out again. I told him, essentially, to fuck off.
What's remarkable about this entire period of my life is that none of my family ever asked, "You got a girlfriend?" by the way. Either they thought I was too icky to ever land a girlfriend, or they knew already that I wasn't interested. ANYway.
Ellen. The show aired on ABC, but our local affiliate refused to air the episode. I forget what was shown instead, but it was a religious thing with leisure suits. The same affiliate of ABC had also refused--for years!--to air "NYPD Blue," and like 'NYPD Blue', the local FOX affiliate--FOX54--saw an opportunity and aired the episode. WAAY in Huntsville, AL, in the '90s, was an uptight money-losing station, apparently. FOX-54 was ascending.
To recap: I'm alone in my room, in my father's house, leaning out of windows to smoke and snacking on Doritos, and there is the television. Laura Dern is Ellen's love interest. I've just broken up with a guy who likes me. I'm still in the closet, though supportive of those who aren't. I've dropped out of two colleges. I've got a life in shambles even though it doesn't seem a shambles.
"Susan," Ellen Morgan/DeGeneres says. Leans into a microphone. "I'm gay."
"That felt so good. And loud," Ellen Morgan/DeGeneres says.
It took two years til I'd actually meet the man who gave me the courage to come out. But that moment, sitting in my room, astounded me. We knew it was coming, we were told, and yet she persisted. She, Ellen DeGeneres, changed a lot by simply using a word, 'gay'.
Some years later, Greg, my husband, and I went to City Hall, and were married. Officially, unquestionably, completely married. It was a long process of nearly 15 years, and not a process we thought possible when we first met in Alabama. Our dog was there. Our puppy. Not, of course, in the actual City Hall, but we had a picture of him, and I'm not sure Greg truly understood why it was important for me to have the pup's pic up on my iPhone when the judge bound us together.
It was because of The Puppy Episode.
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