Thursday, 20 February 2014

On Ellen Page

First, I have to start with an apology. I haven’t updated this blog in an absurdly long time and I am rather annoyed at myself for this lapse in productivity. I have my excuses – I worked as a Christmas temp over the holidays in a department store and that basically drained all my energy and my creativity – however my real reason for not updating, for not writing anything in months, is that I just haven’t found anything to write about. I am the worst kind of perfectionist – the kind that would rather not do anything at all than do something that doesn’t meet the standards I set for myself. I write better, and more easily when I care about something, when something makes me feel. I write at my best when I have to, when something just won’t leave my brain until I get it down on paper – or online as in this case – and for the past few months nothing had really made me feel like that.

That is until now.

Or to be more accurate, until last Saturday – the day after Valentine’s Day and the day I woke up in my girlfriend’s bed, logged onto her laptop and saw Ellen Page’s wonderful speech at the HRC’s Time to Thrive conference in which she came out as gay. Of course I know this is somewhat old news now at least as far as the internet is concerned and believe me I would have written this sooner if I hadn’t been spending a blissful long weekend at my girlfriend’s house until Tuesday evening. However, the extra few days have been helpful. I’ve stopped hyperventilating for one – when I saw the video my girlfriend was out at work so I had to excitedly hug her laptop instead so as to regain control of my body. I’ve also had chance to make my thoughts more coherent which anyone out there reading this should be thankful for because otherwise my first post on here in five months would have been largely incomprehensible and completely overpopulated with exclamation marks.

So here it is – my delayed reaction to Page’s speech, her coming out and why it most definitely does matter.

There’s a term “The Glass Closet” which is used to refer to people – largely those in the public eye – who are widely known to be queer but who have never really come out; they’re still in the closet but everyone can see them there. Jodie Foster, up until her speech at last year’s Golden Globes, was regarded as being in the glass closet and yes, to an extent, so was Ellen Page. There had always been rumours – as there always are when you’re a woman in Hollywood who doesn’t dress like Hollywood wants you to – and there had long been an acknowledgement within the queer community that those rumours were likely true. Regardless of that though, I, like many others had never expected Ellen Page to come out, at least not now. Coming out in Hollywood is just not done. Even Jodie Foster never said the words “I’m gay”.

This shouldn’t really have to be said, but clearly for some it needs explaining – coming out, regardless of how many people know or have assumed, regardless of rumour or open secrets, is always, always a big deal. It is always brave, it is always important and it always matters. It matters to the person doing it and it matters to the LGBT community. Every time someone comes out there is one more person in the world who is saying they’re not afraid anymore, one more person whose voice joins the cause, who’s standing up for their right to be exactly who they are and be loved for it.

Ellen’s speech was clearly, painfully personal. Her nervousness was palpable, as was her relief in that sigh after she said those two words which for so many people are so hard to get out. I know that sigh, that’s the sound I made two years ago when I told my parents the same thing. My coming out was far less eloquent and largely consisted of violent sobs – not because I was sad, but because I was scared. I am lucky enough to be part of a family who I knew would not be angry when I told them. I knew I would not be disowned or thrown out of the house, I knew I would not be sent for therapy or made to pray for healing. I knew all of this but that did not stop me from being terrified – terrified that my parents, the people in the world who were supposed to know me the best, would think that I’d been lying to them and would feel like they did not know me anymore. I can only imagine the bravery required to stand up in front of a room full of strangers and say the same thing, knowing that it would be broadcast worldwide to anyone and everyone who cared to press play. There is a strength in being that open so publicly which I cannot even fathom. Even without the potential of negative consequences, it is still an incredibly brave thing to defy someone’s expectations, to say that you are not what everyone thought you were. It still requires an immense amount of self assurance and courage to even say that to yourself,  let alone to someone else – or in this case millions of someone elses. This is why I am so confused and angered by the smattering of comments by queer people implying that because they already knew or had already assumed, that somehow it wasn’t important. We have all felt that nervous, that scared and that relieved. On a personal level coming out can mean everything. Before I came out the first time – because yes, you don’t just come out once – (to my best friend, over MSN which now just makes me feel old) I felt like I was disappearing. I was so insulated, so scared of anyone finding out, I had so cut myself off from everyone, so surrounded myself with lies and assumptions that I was scared I would collapse in on myself. I wasn’t me anymore; I was the image I wanted to project of me. Telling someone, finally saying “I’m gay” changed everything. I defy anyone to watch that speech and think that those two words weren’t important. You can see the weight lift off her shoulders, you can see the relief in her entire body when she said what she’d been scared to say for so long and was met with a standing ovation. You can see the importance there, you can see how much it meant.

There also seems to be a certain amount of confusion, or misunderstanding of the culture surrounding homosexuality in Hollywood. The average straight white male internet commenter trying to hide their homophobia in “who cares?” type language seems to think that it is easy now, to be out and gay in the industry. It’s show business right? Everyone’s gay. I would challenge those people to name another out gay woman with the same profile as Ellen Page. Name any out gay woman starring in a blockbuster like the X-Men movies. There are none. Jodie Foster is the only other A-list movie star I can think of who represents gay women and she rarely stars in films anymore. At her peak Jodie Foster was closeted, she came out publicly when she was 50 after winning the Cecile B. DeMille award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. Ellen Page has just come out in the midst of her career. She is a household name (I often gauge how well known an actor is by whether my brother knows who they are and he’d recognise her immediately) and her career has really only just started. She was first really noticed on an international scale in Hard Candy which premiered in 2005. After first appearing in the X-Men franchise as Kitty Pride in 2006’s The Last Stand, her next big hit was Juno in 2007. Despite the major success of that movie, she was still largely an indie actress – someone people knew about but who starred mostly in independent films which mainstream audiences failed to notice – until her role in Inception in 2010. Starring in one of the most anticipated and successful blockbusters of the year capitalised on her indie cred, making her name not only associated with smaller independent projects but also tying her to big money and big returns. After the reinvigoration of the X-Men franchise with the success (both commercially and also, crucially, critically) of First Class the next big X-Men film is both hotly anticipated by audiences and expected to be a huge success financially by the studio. With a massive movie such as this on the horizon, coming out was by no means a safe option. Hollywood may seem like a safe haven for gay people but in fact it’s just as homophobic as any other industry where public opinion drives sales. Hollywood has a long standing reputation for allowing its stars to do whatever they’d like in private but when it comes to being out of the closet there are many a cautionary tale. Ellen DeGeneres was black listed when she came out. Her show was cancelled and she was criticised for being “too gay” by both industry types and fellow queer stars alike. DeGeneres was punished not for being gay, but for refusing to hide it anymore. There is a culture of silence in Hollywood, a culture that tells you to hide your sexuality in order to be successful. Page alluded to this in her speech, along with expectations of beauty and appearance. There is seemingly an idea that openly gay actors cannot convincingly play straight characters. This of course is bullshit – Neil Patrick Harris has played Barney Stinson, a character whose personality is centred almost entirely on his heterosexuality for eight years whilst still being an out and proud gay man. Portia De Rossi played Lindsay Bluth on Arrested Development – again a character whose heterosexual promiscuity formed a large part of their storylines. The entire point of being an actor is playing characters who are not like you – no one finds Wolverine unconvincing because we know that Hugh Jackman doesn’t really have adamantium claws. This idea, this lie, exists solely to scare queer actors into keeping their sexualities quiet. The studios want non-controversial stars in their movies, they want safe bets, and they don’t want to lose the far-right audience. Coming out in Hollywood is still a huge risk. Page has not only opened herself up to criticism from homophobic internet commenters, but has also exposed her career to potential setbacks. The fact that took that risk in order to be honest about who she is and to be visible is incredibly brave and I can only hope that the industry has changed more than it seems.     

Ellen Page talked about how important it was for her to come out personally but the main focus of her speech was how vital it was for her to be out publically. I have always admired Page for her commitment to social change, the way she consistently talks about feminism in her interviews and her passion for eco-activism. Because of this I had always thought that if she were to come out it would be because of a sense of responsibility and she did not disappoint. She understands how important it is for LGBT youth to have representation and you get the distinct sense from her speech that she felt like she would be doing a disservice to those young people if she was not part of that. Page has always kept her private life away from her public persona – a necessity if you are a closeted celebrity. When she mentioned “lying by omission” in her speech I was reminded of an interview she did on Craig Ferguson where she spent the whole time talking about asparagus – it was amusing but you could tell the lengths she was going to to avoid any mention of her personal life. Her speech reminded me somewhat of Lana Wachowski’s acceptance speech when she won the HRC Visibility Award back in 2012. She talked about being a private person, but feeling the need or the responsibility to sacrifice that privacy so that others could see someone like them in the media. In an ideal world an actor’s sexuality would be irrelevant. We do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world where queer kids kill themselves at 13 because they can’t take the bullying anymore. We live in a world where you can still be fired for being gay in 29 states, where you can be killed for being gay in Uganda and where the police in Russia can legally turn a blind eye to any crimes committed against gay people. We live in a world where the average life expectancy of a trans person is 23 and where trans people have a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered. Our world is far from ideal and so we need representation. We need queer people in the media so that we know that we’re normal, so that the 13 year old kid googling how to tie a noose can see that gay people can be happy and successful and, most importantly, loved.

Ellen Page’s speech said far more than just “I’m gay”. It said being in the closet is hard, it hurts and it fucks with your head but you can live through it and be happy on the other side. It said that yes, people will want you to change, people will want you to pretend you’re something you’re not and it will be difficult knowing that you’ll never be able to meet those expectations, but it’s the expectations that are wrong, not you. It said that yes, people are going to make you feel ashamed, going to try and tell you to hide who you are but those people are wrong and being proud is so much healthier than trying to fit into the box they made for you. It said it’s ok, you’re not alone, I’m here too and I know it’s hard sometimes and I know it’s scary, but everything really can be ok. It was a hand reaching out into the dark and finding another, small and shaking, and holding on for dear life. Because that’s what we’re dealing with, that’s what people seem to forget, it is life or death for us. Representation is literally vital.