Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Stories of Pride: "The Puppy Episode"

It sounded completely innocent, and perhaps that was the reason for the title, but it turned out to be anything but innocent back in 1997 when it aired. It was the episode of the TV show Ellen, when Ellen Morgan came out of the closet and brought Ellen DeGeneres with her.

Ellen had been on for three years, and both Ellen DeGeneres, the writers and producers, were unhappy with the lack of focus in the show. It wasn't the usual single-girl-sitcom-about-the-trials-and-tribulations-of-dating; Executive producer Mark Driscoll suggested that since Ellen Morgan showed no inclination toward dating, she should get a puppy.
"It was an indication of just how lost the show was that network executives would be excited by Ellen buying a puppy."
But then it took on a life of its own, and soon "The Puppy Episode" was born, and it had nothing to do with dogs.

In the summer of 1996 DeGeneres and the shows other writers began negotiating with ABC, and its parent company Disney, to have Ellen Morgan come out during season four. Word of the secret negotiations leaked in September of that year, sparking a storm of speculation as to whether the character, the actress, or both would come out.

Disney rejected the first draft of the script, though not because it would be controversial; Disney exec Dean Valentine said the story did not go far enough. With Disney fully onboard, "The Puppy Episode" was written, and ABC announced on March 3, 1997 that Ellen Morgan would be coming out.

But all wasn't happy and, well, gay, at the time. Believe it or not, there were some people who were upset that Ellen Morgan was going to utter those words … "I'm gay." The studio received bomb threats and phone calls came in declaring that anyone and everyone associated with that show would be going to Hell. And even people in the entertainment industry questioned the need for Ellen Morgan to come out.
"I did it selfishly for myself and because I thought it was a great thing for the show, which desperately needed a point of view."—Ellen DeGeneres
DeGeneres began dropping hints in the episodes leading up to "The Puppy Episode" that she was planning to come out on the show and in real life, including such sight gags as opening the show with Ellen Morgan actually coming out of a closet; and DeGeneres even kissed k.d. lang while presenting her with an award at a Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center function in early 1997.

Finally, in April 1997, came the Time magazine cover, featuring Ellen DeGeneres uttering the words, "Yep, I'm Gay." Ellen, and then-girlfriend [and future crazy] Anne Heche, appeared on Oprah the day "The Puppy Episode" aired to discuss their relationship.

Ellen was out. And Ellen was out.

"The Puppy Episode" and Ellen DeGeneres' coming out generated enormous publicity before the show even aired. Right-wing-nut groups like the American Family Association [AFA] pressured ABC to drop the storyline and urged Ellen sponsors to pull their ads. Two such advertisers, J. C. Penney and Chrysler, decided not to buy time during the episode, and another, Wendy's, decided not to advertise on Ellen ever again.

This was 1997, people, and it is of note that in 2012 J. C. Penney hired Ellen DeGeneres to do an advertising campaign for them.

Of course, even asshat Jerry Falwell had to get in the picture, and took to calling Ellen DeGeneres, "Ellen Degenerate", to which DeGeneres responded:
"I've been getting that since the fourth grade. I guess I'm happy I could give him work."
Still, support for Ellen and Ellen was huge. GLAAD organized "Come Out With Ellen" house parties, and the Human Rights Campaign [HRC] created "Ellen Coming Out House Party" kits that included invitations, posters and an Ellen trivia game. HRC initially planned to send out 300 kits, but response was overwhelming, and they upped that number to over 3,000.

When ABC affiliate WBMA in Birmingham, Alabama, citing that old chestnut "family values", asked for the networks permission to air the show in a late-night slot, ABC refused; the affiliate then refused to air the episode at all and the local LGBT organization Pride Birmingham arranged for a satellite feed of the episode and rented a 5,000-seat theatre for a viewing party, which sold out. Activists in Abilene, Texas circulated a petition requesting that their affiliate, KTXS, not air the episode but were unsuccessful.

"The Puppy Episode" was the highest-rated episode ever of Ellen, drawing some 42 million viewers; it won an Emmy for Best Comedy Writing, and won a Peabody Award for Excellence in Television, and a GLAAD Media Award.

Ellen Morgan's coming out has been described as "the most hyped, anticipated, and possibly influential gay moment on television" and is credited with paving the way for such LGBT-themed shows such as Will and GraceThe L WordUgly Betty and others. It has also been suggested that Ellen and these other series have helped to reduce societal prejudice against LGBT people.

Following "The Puppy Episode", Ellen was renewed for another season, but ABC, possibly faced with more advertisers withdrawing, began to preface each episode with a parental advisory warning because, you know, gay. DeGeneres criticized the network for including the warnings, telling Entertainment Weekly:
"It was like this voice like you're entering some kind of radiation center. It was very offensive, and you don't think that's going to affect ratings?"
DeGeneres further noted hypocrisy on the part of ABC which aired episodes of The Drew Carey Show and Spin City, featuring two men kissing, with no disclaimers at all. Was it because the men, and their characters were heterosexual, and so the joke was okay?

So, many people say, Ellen DeGeneres took it a step further. Episodes after "The Puppy Episode" dealt almost solely with LGBT issues: Ellen coming out to her parents and boss, quitting her job at the bookstore and finding a series of new jobs, searching for a girlfriend, and learning more about the LGBT community.

Even some members of the LGBT community criticized this new gayer Ellen. Chastity Bono, working for GLAAD at the time, said:
"[Ellen] is so gay it's excluding a large part of our society. A lot of the stuff on it is somewhat of an inside joke. It's one thing to have a gay lead character, but it's another when every episode deals with specific gay issues."
Bono would later say her—Chaz Bono had not come out as transgender at this time and had not yet transitioned—comments were taken out of context.

Ellen was canceled after its fifth season. And with that, DeGeneres went back to stand-up comedy, where she had begun her career, and returned to television in 2001 with the short-lived The Ellen Show, in which her character Ellen Richmond was openly lesbian from the start. She has since found enormous success with her talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Speaking of "The Puppy Episode" and its aftermath, DeGeneres said:
"It was a huge step in my life. I think people sensed the honesty in it. I think it helped a lot of people, and still to this day I hear about parents and children being able to have an honest conversation through watching that show. That's ultimately what television can be: It can get conversations started."
I agree. I was out, way out, when this show aired, but I teared up when Ellen Morgan uttered those words, because I had teared up the first time I uttered them. And I teared up because this was one of the first times I had seen one of 'us' on TV who wasn't a joke, or a villain, or dying of AIDS.

It was a gay character, just a normal gay character. And I'll always remember the one line I loved even more than the coming out line; it happens when Ellen Morgan tells her therapist that no one gives you a cake with the words "Good For You, You're Gay" on it. And when she finally admits that she is gay, her therapist says those words to her.

I say that to everyone I know who's come out since that show aired:
"Good for you. You're gay."
And the march goes on.

Stories of Pride: Jade Elektra is Unforgettable

Last week at the 2019 Toronto AIDS Vigil, local drag queen Jade Elektra, AKA HIV+ activist Alphonso King, Jr.,  took the stage to deliver a message. And it wasn’t that Jade would become the first drag performer to ever sing live at the event, it was the song she sang and the message she delivered.

She sang the Nat King Cole classic, “Unforgettable,” but made the tiniest of changes to the lyrics:
Jade says the song, and the idea to sing it that night, started as a joke with her husband:
“I started singing it and decided to say ‘undetectable’ instead. It wasn’t until he insisted that I sing it for an upcoming show that I realized that the original lyrics worked on a different level with the word change.”
And after performing the song publicly once or twice, Jade was invited to sing at the annual AIDS Vigil, and even she was stunned by the reaction:
“Looking out over all those faces was amazing. And hearing their reaction to the first word was magical! My fear melted away and it was on to channeling Marilyn Monroe as much as possible. Because after all, I may be HIV positive, but Jade is a sexual being and unapologetic about it. I hadn’t decided what I was going to say in the instrumental break, so I just let what came to mind come out.”
And this is what she said during that break:
“You know, for people who are living with HIV, we finally have the science to back up what I kind of knew about a decade ago. That ‘undetectable’ means you are ‘untransmittable.’ And hopefully, this will help us fight the stigma associated with being positive.”
It’s no longer an instant death sentence; it’s no longer something to feel ashamed of; it’s a condition, a manageable condition; it’s not something to fear or hide. You can live openly and honestly, and love openly and honestly, and be a sexual being, openly and honestly.

And Jade is absolutely ‘unforgettable’ for delivering that message.
LGBTQ Nation

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Stories of Pride: One More Reason To Be Out and Proud

Sal Stow and Meghan Stabler are a same-sex couple living in Texas. Yes. Texas. And this month, during Pride month, as they do, they hung a Pride flag outside their home. Again; Texas. And what happened next, well, here’s how Sal posted it:
“I just went out to collect 2 packages from the doorstep (at my partner Meghan’s house, that I call home) only to find this note under a rock on the mat. This is why visibility is SO important. You never know who needs the support and to know it’s ok. I hope this person is ok, their family is being supportive and they find a community to connect with that can help them through this brave process. Williamson County is extremely conservative and in fact the County Commissioners voted 4-0 to not allow the pride flag to be flown on the Round Rock county court buildings. I am proud of who I am and the person I love. I will continue to be visible in whatever way I can”
And this is the note:
“Hello, you don’t know me but my name is [redacted]. We’re moving away today but I wanted to thank you. Seeing a pride flag waving so proudly outside your home every day has given me the courage to come out to my family and be more comfortable with who I am.”
You know, I often say that closeted celebrities need to come out because, in doing so, they may inspire other people, the non-famous sort, the everyday gays, to come out as well.

But it’s not just the famous; it’s all of us that need to be out and open and visible because if we can help just one other person not feel different or alone or shames, then that’s the real meaning of Pride.

Stories of Pride: Utah High School Won't Stand For Homophobia

A video posted to Snapchat last week shows an unidentified person setting fire to an LGBTQ Pride flag as onlookers laugh, and a voice is heard saying:
“All gays die.”
And now two football players at Kearns High School in Salt Lake City—one who posted the original video and one who reposted it—have been suspended indefinitely from the team.

Kearns High School football Coach Matt Rickards says the incident has “embarrassed and humiliated” him and his team:
“We have one rule in our program, and that is not to embarrass yourself, your family or your team. That rule was broken. There’s got to be consequences for that. Our number one goal is to build men of character, integrity, be responsible, have empathy for others and serve the community for good. That’s our number one objective.
I will say I was stunned to hear this coming out of Utah, which isn’t the most LGBTQ-friendly place in America; and I was equally stunned that a football coach would react the way Rickards did. But if you don’t punish the hate now, it will only fester and grow, and maybe cutting these two young men from the team will send a message that homophobia is unnacceptbble.

The Granite School District is investigating the incident and says it’s possible that both the student who posted the video and the one who reposted it could face community service or suspension from the school.

Good on the school, good on the district, and especially good on Coach Rickards for trying to make decent human beings out of his players. I imagine his players, those who posted the video and those who may have watched, feel horrible that they have disappointed their coach.

Not to mention their school and their families.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Stories of Pride: Like Stonewall, Pulse Could Become An Historical Landmark

There is talk, as we just commemorated the third anniversary of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, of turning the spot into an historic landmark.

As Floridians and queer people around the world continue to mourn and memorialize the third anniversary of the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre, a group of Florida lawmakers have introduced a new bill in Congress to have the site declared a historic landmark.

United States Congressional Representatives from Florida, Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy, recently announced their intentions to create a memorial to those whose lives were taken June 12, 2016; Soto said:
“This is an important step to preserve an LGBT historic landmark at a time when many of these sites are being destroyed. The memorial will serve as a reminder of the remarkable way our community came together to heal and overcome hate.”
At present, funds raised by the non-for-profit group onePULSE have helped establish the site as a temporary landmark, but if this bill passes—and remember, it’s Florida so it might be an uphill climb … the governor of the state recently marked the anniversary of the Pulse shooting without mentioning the LGBTQ community at all—Pulse would have access to national funds to help maintain the memorial as a permanent site.

Barbara Poma, owner of Pulse, says the site has thus far raised $14 million of a $45 million goal.
“In these times when acts of hate and violence are on the rise, we must remember our past and work to do better now and in the future”.
If this bill passes, Pulse would become only the second LGBTQ site in the nation after the Stonewall Inn to become a national monument. And if it passes, I suggest we move to create a memorial to remember the UpStairs Lounge massacre as well; and maybe include the 1966 LGBTQ riot at the Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco.

We can celebrate Pride and dance and sing and have fun, but we need to remember the sadness and the tragedies of what has happened before; if we forget, then nothing will change.

Stories of Pride: Before Pulse, There Was The UpStairs Lounge

Forty-six years ago today, four years after Stonewall, the 24th of June, 1973 was a Sunday in New Orleans and the last day of that city’s Pride Weekend. Of course, even in those days after Stonewall, you couldn’t really have an open celebration of Pride because there was still an ignorance of the LGBTQ community and it wasn’t safe, sometimes, even in New Orleans, to be openly gay. Still, there were places to gather and party and celebrate and be gay, like the second-floor bar on the corner of Iberville and Chartres Street; the UpStairs Lounge.

That day, members of the Metropolitan Community Church [MCC], the nation’s first gay church, founded in Los Angeles in 1969, gathered at the UpStairs for drinks and conversation. It seems to have been a welcoming, accepting, open, group; two attendees, gay brothers, Eddie and Jim Warren, even brought their mom, Inez, and proudly introduced her to the other patrons.

It was a party until … just before 8PM, the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. Buddy Rasmussen, an UpStairs bartender, was expecting a taxi driver and asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the driver in.

But it wasn’t a taxi driver at the door; it was an attacker, who had sprayed lighter fluid on the stairs and set ablaze as Boggs opened the door. A fireball pushed into the stairwell, and up towards the bar, engulfing the room and those gathered in flames.

MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell escaped, but came back in hopes of rescuing his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both men died in the fire, their bodies clinging together in death. The metal bars on the windows, meant to keep people from falling out, were just 14 inches apart, and most men and women were unable to squeeze through. That’s how MCC pastor, Bill Larson, died that night, screaming “Oh, God, no!”  After the fire, when police and firefighters surveyed the damage and began clearing the scene, they left Larson fused to the window frame until the next morning.

Thirty-two people lost their lives that Sunday 40 years ago—Luther Boggs, Inez Warren and her two sons, among them. And yet, even more sad, and disgusting, was that homophobia was so rampant in those days, families of some of those who died that night refused to claim the bodies, and local churches would not perform burials for the dead, or allow memorials to take place within their walls. Three victims were never identified or claimed, and were interred at the local potter’s field.

Three people considered unworthy of even a burial or a marker or recognition that they had ever lived, or died, at all.

When the Reverend William Richardson, of St. George’s Episcopal Church, held a small prayer service for the dead, about 80 people attended; but many more complained about Richardson to Iveson Noland, the Episcopalian bishop of New Orleans, who rebuked Richardson for his kindness.

Until Pulse nightclub, the UpStairs Lounge arson was the largest massacre of LGBTQ people ever in this country and yet it wasn’t even considered newsworthy; after all, it was just queers who died, so who really cared? And the few news organizations that covered the fire barely mentioned that those who died were gay, and this being in the decades and decades before Hate Crimes, it was never treated as such. A local radio DJ, when asked where they would bury the dead suggested “fruit” jars to his listeners.

And while other, smaller disasters resulted in City Hall press conferences or statements of condolence from the governor, not one civil authority spoke out about the fire or those murdered. In addition, the New Orleans police department wasn’t so interested about investigating the fire, of finding the culprit, or culprits. Detectives wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was an arson case, saying the cause of the fire was of “undetermined origin.”

No one was ever charged with the UpStairs Lounge fire, and the murders, though a local man with known mental problems, Rogder Dale Nunez, claimed responsibility multiple times. Nunez, a sometime visitor to the UpStairs Lounge, committed suicide in 1974.

Times have changed since 1973, but not by much … I'd never heard this story and now like Pulse, and others, I will never forget.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Stories of Pride: Love Calls Back

I’ve told the story before, but it bears repeating because I was one of the lucky ones, and I know it, and I remember it, every single time a person comes out.

When I said those words to my mother and father … I’m gay … I didn’t know how they’d be received. As far as I knew then, and I know differently now, there were no gay men or women in my family before me, so I didn’t know what my mom and dad would say.

Well, I knew what my mom would say, because moms always know, but it was my dad that was the unknown. And when I said those words, he said to me:
I love you very much.
Now, it took him a hot minute to get used to the idea, and we had discussions about LGBTQ rights ever since, but he chose the very best words possible for that moment and I will never forget them.

At this month’s Tony Awards, a new video from PFLAG and Verizon—entitled Love Calls Back—aired that tells the story of four LGBTQ people who came out to their family and were rejected. Only now the  straight [cisgender] family members realize that they handled the situation wrong, and it’s their turn to call their loved ones to tell them they love them:

I love that last message:
“It’s never too late to call back for love.”
LGBTQ Nation

Friday, June 21, 2019

Stories of Pride: I Didn't Say It ...

Pete Buttigieg, Democratic candidate for president, saying that being gay is just one part of who he is:

“I am proud of who I am. I’m certainly very proud of my marriage and my husband. We don’t shy away from that. It’s also not the only thing that defines me. I’m here to be a president for everyone. Talking about my experience is an important part of that. But it’s especially important because it can help me relate to people who have a different experience than what I went through. All these things fit together.I think some people have an image of what a gay person or an LGBTQ activist is supposed to look like. And I think if you’ve met one gay person, you’ve met one gay person. We have different styles and different approaches. But what I try to do is just be who I am … I don’t know who else to be.”

My thoughts exactly.
I don’t call myself a ‘gay man’ but a ‘man who is gay,’ because I am more than just my sexual orientation, and when we limit ourselves to one thing, that’s all we’ll ever be.
Anderson Cooper, speaking of his mother, fashion icon Gloria Vanderbilt, who passed away this week:

“The last few weeks, every time I’d kiss her good-bye, I’d say ‘I love you mom.’ She would look at me and say, ‘I love you too. You know that.’ And she was right. I did know that. I knew it from the moment I was born and I’ll know it for the rest of my life. And in the end, what greater gift can a mother give to her son? Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman who loved life and lived it on her own terms. She spent a lot of time alone in her head during her life, but when the end came she was not alone. She was surrounded by beauty and by family and by friends….What an extraordinary life. What an extraordinary mom. What an incredible woman.”

“I’ll know it for the rest of my life.”
What a gift from mother to son, and back again.
Ricky Martin, in a letter to Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, asking him to axe an anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bill:

“As a member of the LGBTT  [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transvestite, Transsexual] community, I join the constituency that affirms that there has never been a willingness among our LGBTT people to allow for the validation or legalization of discrimination against us. House Bill 2069, filed at the request of Governor Ricardo Rosselló and promoted by Representative Charbonier, achieve nothing more than opening the doors to hatred towards anyone who doesn’t share the same ideology, who simply belong to the LGBTT community, or who don’t  have the same color skin, amidst many other discriminatory measures. Authentic religious freedom calls for respecting everyone equally. As a defender of human rights and a member of the LGBTT community, I am vehemently opposed to the proposed measure imposed upon us under the guise of religious freedom, which degrades us as a society and projects us to the world as a backwards country, unwilling to honor the basic constitutional right of individuality. This movement is not representative of the Puerto Rico that we all love, defend and hold so dear. We call on the Senate, the House and Governor Ricardo Rosselló to reject this effort, which is an open door to hatred and discrimination.”

And a letter works. After receiving Martin’s letter Governor Rosselló asked lawmakers to shelve the bill.
There is power in our voices.
The march goes on …
Halsey, performing in a t-shirt paying tribute to Melania and Chris, the lesbian couple attacked on a London bus last week, blasting the so-called ‘Straight Pride’ movement:

“The sad reality is, after the Pride parades are over and after the bars close their Pride nights, when the glitter is being swept out of the streets, a lot of people get on those trains and they get on those buses and they try to wash the rainbows off their bodies. They peel the stickers off their clothes, because when Pride is over, it’s not safe to be gay anymore, because they are worried that someone is going to viciously assault them or viciously attack them. So, when the people around the world ask the question, ‘Why isn’t there a ‘Straight Pride’ parade?’ The answer because if there was one, you wouldn’t have to get on the bus and be terrified of getting f**king beaten or killed afterwards. That’s why there’s not a ‘Straight Pride’ parade. Because every f**king day on public transport is a ‘Straight Pride’ parade.”

Tyler Blackburn, Pretty Little Liars and Roswell, New Mexico actor, who came out as bisexual earlier this year, revealing he’s dating “an amazing guy” in an interview with Playboy:

“As I got older, I realized good sex is when you really have something between the two of you. It’s not just a body. The more I’ve realized that, the more able I am to be settled in my sexuality. I’m freer in my sexuality now. I’m very sexual; it’s a beautiful aspect of life. Once I decided to date men, I was like, Please just let me be gay and be okay with that, because it would be a lot fucking easier. At times, bisexuality feels like a big gray zone. I’ve had to check myself and say, I know how I felt when I was in love with women and when I slept with women. That was true and real. Don’t discredit that, because you’re feeding into what other people think about bisexuality.”

Sometimes we—and I’m also guilty of this—joke and downplay people who identify as bisexual. But if we cannot accept our own, how  can we ask anyone to accept them, or us, either.
Judith Light, receiving the Isabelle Stevenson Award at the Tony Awards earlier this month:

“The HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ communities are inspirations and demonstrations of how to be and live in the world; courageous, honorable, and uplifting. They inspire me and it is my privilege to be of service to them. I am humbled by this recognition from my theater family, whom I so respect, honor, and love.”

We can do all we want for ourselves; speak up, act up. But it helps to have an ally like Judith Light who has stood with us, marched with us, spoken with us, and for us, for decades.