By Jeff Walsh
Ellen DeGeneres has been through a lot in the past two years.
She had to deal with the media scrutiny about the character on her now-defunct television show coming out of the closet, which was closely followed by the Religious Right boycotting ABC and Disney, which produced her show. At the end of that television season, she eventually did come out both as Ellen the actress/comedian and Ellen the character on the show.
At the same time, she met Anne Heche, and even more scrutiny greeted the couple who questioned Heche's sexuality (because everyone knows how much being an open lesbian helps leading ladies get movie work?!). Ellen and Anne went on Oprah, where they were verbally attacked by anti-gay audience members, and Anne returned for another show about her switch from heterosexuality to being in love with Ellen, which seemed to confuse both Oprah and her audience.
Then, Ellen returned for the next (and last) season of her show, which ABC didn't really support, putting a parental advisory warning on episodes that discussed her lesbianism and promoting the show by seemingly only to add "And then stay tuned for Ellen" at the end of every Drew Carey promotional spot.
The ratings sagged, despite the show really putting out quality episodes that then-GLAAD mouthpiece Chastity Bono said were "too-gay," although she later said she was taken out of context. It was an incredibly long, detailed quote from Bono, which makes me wonder in what context that answer wouldn't have been anti-Ellen.
Since her sitcom was cancelled, Ellen has gone on to make two movies and is in the middle of writing a comedy special for HBO, marking her return to stand-up. Heche has not only proved that audiences will accept an open lesbian as a leading lady, but that she could carry a movie. Her roles in Wag the Dog, Six Days/Seven Nights and Return to Paradise have all been breath-taking. The only curtain closed on Heche as a result of her being open about her sexuality was the shower curtain in the Psycho remake, coming out in December. (Although, if Psycho remake director Gus Van Sant stays true to Hitchcock's original marketing plan, Heche would appear in the shower scene in the preview, but would play the other female lead in the movie. Time will tell...)
In the last week of September, DeGeneres, Heche and "their mother" Betty DeGeneres took to the stage in San Francisco for a fund-raiser to raise money for the gay marriage project in Hawaii. (I won't go into how crucial it is that we win this race in November here, check out all the info on HRC's Web site)
The fund-raiser began by screening the 45-minute documentary "The Real Ellen Story," made by British filmmakers who followed Ellen throughout the season leading up to the coming out episode. Then, the guest stars appeared onstage for a 45-minute question-and-answer session, at the end of which many in the audience were crying (more details later).
DeGeneres balanced her roles as comedian and activist well, talking about the importance of marriage and unity within the gay community, but also not resisting the urge to deliver some great one-liners and comedy routines throughout the Q&A. Her first words after walking onstage were "Welcome to Exodus..." referring to the leading ex-gay ministry, which can take a gay person and, through the grace of God, turn them into a repressed homosexual that acts like a heterosexual.
The audience didn't waste time hitting the issue, with someone asking the couple their impressions on the California lawmaker attempting to add a "defense of marriage" bill to the state constitution, which would then prevent California from recognizing any Hawaii-sanctioned marriages (again, check out the HRC website for all you want to know about the fight for marriage).
"You begin honey...," DeGeneres said, quickly deferring to Heche, with a big grin.
"Part of what we're doing here tonight is to try and combat that absolute stupidity," Heche said. "But if I can be more eloquent... why anybody would want to take an initiative to say you are not allowed to love someone only says to me that they have never understood what love is. If we could try to get that man to receive love..."
"From another man...," Ellen interjected, to uproarious laughter.
"... which is probably what he wants anyway, but he's too afraid to admit it," Heche said, obviously no stranger to her stories being comedically punched-up by Ellen. "For anybody who does not support gays... well, we know where hatred comes from. Hopefully, he will be able to understand what love means by not being attacked, but that through all of us coming together, all gay rights and human rights organizations, that he will be fed with an understanding of love other than hatred, and that that will hopefully change his mind... What an asshole."
Ellen followed up by mentioning that one of the major issues in the fight for gay equal rights is the lack of unity within the gay community.
"There are so many closeted people that don't come forth, it's so easy for the religious right to have so much power and so much money. We attack each other in this community. I witnessed that, and it's disgusting," she said. "It's really hard when you're trying to represent just yourself, an in effect a whole group of people who are making the same choices that you are, but you get attacked by those same groups of people. We need to have the same kind of unity and commitment that they do, and until we get that it's a battle that's hard to imagine how organized they are and how much money they have. The amount of money they're spending on this proposition alone in Hawaii is enormous. And they'll keep fighting it and keep fighting it, and we need more people to commit to this and support one another."
Heche noted that even in Hollywood, which the Right seems to paint as having a pro-gay agenda, many people are in the closet and more focused on their careers then the quality of their actual lives (if they can even discern a difference).
"Just because someone is homosexual in Hollywood doesn't mean that they're open about it or that they support other people being open about it. That's one of the most unfortunate things I've witnessed in the last year and a half," Heche said. "When I left my agent and manager who asked me not to come to the Volcano premiere with Ellen, I went back to a woman I absolutely adore and never should have left in the first place. One of the things the agency said to me was just be careful because the homosexuals in this community will hate you more than anybody for doing what you did. Now, there is a problem. Unity is one of the things that I looked at this community and said, 'Whoa! Where is the support? Where is the support? Where is the support?' Let's change that."
It should be noted that most of the question-and-answer period was delivered in much the same style as the President's State of the Union address, where their responses are met with roaring applause every time they make a point. For this story, the goal is to make their responses flow without mentioning the love-in of applause.
Ellen then announced that she has decided to return to stand-up comedy, which filled the theater with deafening applause.
"I think you're going to have an audience, honey. I think you'll be OK," Heche said.
"It's the scariest thing in the world," Ellen said, about returning to stand-up. "I haven't been onstage in six years and I am freaking out. I started writing, and you can imagine what I've been writing about... I'm just going to be spewing anger for an hour and a half. You'll be leaving and just say, 'Oh God! Her world is horrible!' But I'm getting a better perspective and it's now very funny. I will talk about all the thing you'd imagine I'll talk about and just basically get back to be funny, which is always what I just wanted to be."
Ellen said many closeted people in Hollywood are looking to them as a litmus test to see if it is safe to come out of the closet.
"Unfortunately, I was a bad litmus test. She's a good one," Ellen said, motioning to Heche. "She's doing very well. It's very important to keep going to movies and support that, to say 'yes, there is an openly gay actress in this film and we can buy that she's heterosexual.'"
Someone in the crowd then yelled that "Return to Paradise Rocked!" DeGeneres, aiming to please the crowd, turned to Heche and said, "Do a little scene from that, honey."
Heche just rolled her eyes, shook her head back and forth, and said, "She makes me act it out every night. Do it again! Courtroom again, honey!"
Heche then stressed that they don't have many people who have gone through what they have, both personally and professionally, who can help support them.
"One of the things that Ellen said in one of the lighter moments was 'You know what? Who do I pick up the phone to call and say 'Hey! Last time you came out and your show got canceled and everybody wrote really nasty things about you all of the time, how did that make you feel?'" Heche said. "There is nobody else that has gone through that. She is it. She was the pioneer of this. And that's isolating."
Heche then noted that the couple does have support from another power-lesbian couple, Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher, who were unexpectedly in the crowd.
"There is a very special person that's very supportive of us, in this, and is also a pioneer, and she is one who makes us feel not so isolated," Heche said. "Would Melissa Etheridge please come up here?"
Etheridge said she didn't want to detract from their fund-raiser, and Heche was forced to share her microphone with Melissa, prompting Ellen to note: "We're not the religious right, we can only afford two microphones."
Again, someone in the crowd yelled, "Hey Melissa! You're the Only One!" Ellen shot back with, "Come up to her window!" Etheridge joined in the parade of song titles, by holding up bottled water and noting, "Anne brought be some water."
"She brought you some water," Ellen said, turning into the host of a bizarre new party game. "Come on, let's keep doing songs."
Etheridge then chimed in about the fund-raiser, and the "wonderful feeling" throughout the $50-a-head crowd. She also noted that it was one of the last times she and Julie could get on a plane, since Julie was pregnant (Cypher remained in the audience, despite them calling her to the stage earlier).
"These two women who, God!, have done so much... I know you all see the press," Etheridge said. "People would ask me when Ellen was coming out and I would be doing interviews for my own record, and they would say 'What do you think about Ellen?' And, 'Isn't it too much? Isn't she going overboard?' And I was like, No?! This is so important, so huge. The reason you feel she's going overboard is because it's so huge. She does one interview and a hundred networks and papers pick it up, so it seems like she did a hundred interviews about it. But, it was a great time."
When asked if Ellen and Anne were thinking of becoming parents, DeGeneres deflected the question.
"We love looking at Julie. We love supporting Julie, Melissa and their two children. And we love Baby Gap clothes," Ellen said, before launching into what will probably be a future comedy routine on parenting. "And we like to go home, stay up until two in the morning, have our freedom and go, 'we don't want that.' Our kitten gets on our nerves. And you can't use the water spray bottle on the baby and say "No! No, No, No!" And therapy is so expensive, and I'm sure by that time it will just be outrageous for a kid. So, we'll have one soon and then we'll be reported to child abuse because of the spray bottle thing."
Another audience member disagreed with Ellen's previous statement that she was a 'bad litmus test.'
"My reward is people like you who tell me that I've done something for them," Ellen said. "But, I lost my job. People stopped watching the show, and I think the show last year was better than ever. That was hard for me. And even the final episode, I was like, 'at least they'll watch the final episode to say goodbye' and the ratings were nothing.
"[I was] paying attention to ratings, but it was what my whole life was about. My livelihood came from people liking me," she said. "The press started attacking me non-stop. It just seemed like people were going out of their way to say we don't like you. That's what I felt. So, my a bad litmus test I mean... I lost my job. I ended up surviving, and I will be, ultimately, a brilliant litmus test because I just finished two movies and I'm doing an HBO special. I've been through a dark, dark tunnel and I'm not going to lie. I've been very stressed about stuff that happened to me and it's hard to just act like that doesn't bother you. So, now I'm taking control of what I can do, which is stand-up and I'm going to come back and prove they can't get rid of me. But other people thinking about coming out are going to go, 'I'll lose my show. I'm not going to do that.'"
An 18-year-old actress then told the couple that they are her role models, because before them, she never thought she would have the chance to be open about her sexuality, or be in a happy relationship. She broke down crying while thanking them.
Heche pointed out to her that it is good to be proud of who you are.
"Melissa, Yes, I Am!" Heche said, gesturing to Etheridge and referring one of her album titles "Yes, we are. Yes, you can be. Thank you for getting it."
A reporter from the computing Web site, C-Net, then asked DeGeneres about her opinions on the Internet.
"It's not gay enough?!" Ellen said, shrugging her shoulders and venturing a guess. "I know nothing about computers. I know nothing. I never go online, I don't know inline dancing, anything. Is that a computer term? I don't know! Should I be for the Internet?"
Another audience member asked Betty DeGeneres what advice she had for parents who had problems in accepting their child's sexuality.
"It's a process. I don't know how long ago you told your mom," DeGeneres said. "Non-gay family members have to go through a process of acceptance, just like you did to yourself. Give them time and keep the lines of communication open, that's vital. Keep talking, don't give up. I heard from a young man who said his mother stopped talking to him for a year. And he wouldn't give up. He kept writing, kept calling, just kept on. And they're as close as ever now, even closer."
A 15-year-old female in the crowd then asked the couple what they were doing for queer youth that need support.
Ellen quickly jumped on the question.
"We've gone to high schools and spoken and we... you talk, honey..."
"We've been working with homeless children who have all been kicked out of their homes for their sexuality to the gay and lesbian center," Heche said, which drew loud applause and an admonishment from Heche.
"You know... the thing is, it doesn't really deserve applause. What it deserves is you going into the communities where you live, going in and helping kids. We got into a class that started with 20, it's very difficult ... we're now down to six, and you know what? All we care about is that those six children can be who they are. If every single person in this room goes to their community and worked with children saying 'you can be who you are,' guess what? It would get out. And it would get to the people in Nebraska and all these other places. But the fact is, we did it because we wanted to give back, but all of you can give back. And the fact that you don't... hold your applause until you do and then applaud for yourself."
The Q&A had gone into overtime, because Ellen said she wanted to leave on a high note. Her wait didn't take too long. Zachary, an 11-year-old boy, stood up in the second row of the theater. Heche approached the end of the stage and handed him the microphone.
Nervous and speaking softly, Zachary held the audience captive as he told Ellen and Anne: "I think that if you want to adopt a child, you should, because I have gay parents ... and they're really cool."
Zachary was overcome with emotion, barely getting out the end of his statement, although I couldn't tell whether he was crying or just nervous. Tears were visible running down Etheridge's cheek. The entire audience welled up with tears and emotion, as Heche encouraged the audience to give Zachary a standing ovation. One of Zachary's fathers had a joyous expression on his face, with tears gracing both cheeks as he stared proudly and lovingly at his son. The media snapped pictures of Zachary and his parents. Zachary ended up onstage getting everyone onstage to sign something for him. The crowd's frenzy didn't let up, with everyone staying on their feet, clapping and crying.
"Is that a high enough note for you, honey?" Heche said to DeGeneres, over the applause. They then posed for pictures at the front of the stage, all holding hands, and walked offstage.