Why Ellen Page Coming Out Really Mattered To Me

And if I feel bereft of lesbian role models, what does the 13-year-old girl in Russia think right now? asks Sophie Wilkinson


by Sophie Wilkinson |
Published on

One hungover morning, having enjoyed myself a bit too much at a night called Hard Cock Life, I went to my phone to do the normal; scroll around Facebook and Twitter. In amongst the waffle and chatter was the exclamation that Ellen Page had come out. ‘Wow!’ I thought, a tiny bit cynically. She had always made my gaydar ding, but I’d also read an interview with her where she gladly spoke about radical feminism, yet hadn’t taken that opportunity to come out. ‘Radical feminism was fine, but lesbianism was a step too far?’ I’d thought at the time.

But all my sneering disappeared when I saw Ellen shaking like a jelly atop a dishwasher as she - a Hollywood actress, used to red carpets, strangers and meetings with bigwigs - could barely get her words out. Her nerves belied the enormity of the situation. After watching, I texted friends, Facebooked them, Tweeted a link to it (I later got a notification that 37 of my friends had started following her) then yelled ‘OH MY GOD’. The flatmate I’d just woken texted me from the next room (we’re hungover, remember) ‘What, why are you saying OMG?’ I replied: ‘Ellen Page has come out!’

Though the delivery might have been different – remember landline phones? – a similar sentence was being spluttered by lesbians 16 years ago in 1997 when another Ellen – DeGeneres, that is – came out. Announcing her orientation through her character on her TV show, the sitcom’s ratings then dwindled and ABC cancelled it. Since, Ellen has built herself up as a comedian and host of such high-esteemed calibre that her sexuality need not matter. Nonetheless, it hasn’t led to a whole host of other women as famous as her coming out in such a public way. Until Ellen – Page, that is – this week, there have been very few.* Which is why Page’s speech matters; really matters.

Before anyone asks why we even look to celebrities for role models it’s because we've always used celebrities and gossip as a springboard for discussing important issues we’d be too polite to otherwise bring up. To gauge someone’s opinion on domestic violence, we don’t ask them flat-out ‘what do you think of these statistics showing that one in four women are abused by their partners?’ We ask them what they think about ‘the whole Nigella thing’.

Not only has Ellen Page started a discussion, she’s helped to prove that being something other than straight is not something to be ashamed of, it happens indiscriminately and it is normal. And that’s important because it’s still not something that’s universally acknowledged – or even talked about.

My five-year-old nephew recently asked me why I don’t have a ‘husband’. I said ‘because I’m not married’ and he replied ‘but who do you live with?’ All the people he knows are mummies, daddies, teachers or kids. He can’t understand that people exist outside of those four broad definitions.

Of course that will change as he gets older and is introduced to different types of people. But in the meantime, what if all the kids at his school have those same perceptions? And what if one of those kids is gay, and yet to realise it? If that kid grows up without gay people around them or examples of gay people in the media, they’re never going to know that who they are is normal. Sex education might acknowledge LGBT people’s existence, but with sexism, STDs, unwanted pregnancies and sexual abuse amongst young people all to tackle, gay issues are being left until the school bell rings. And besides, that’s just sex, there’s nothing in there about actual relationships.

And that absence of any visibility of lesbian relationships only gets more prevalent the older you get. You might not be aware of it if you’re straight, but you’re represented everywhere. You’re considered the default in adverts, films, television, magazines, chocolate tins, the flyers for nightclubs and, up until recently, in our legal system. You might not notice the attention you get, because you’ve had it all your life, but LGBT people notice the ways in which they’re ignored. The way there’s still an assumption that ‘straight’ is humans' default setting.

Incidentally, it’s really not – most research shows that 5-6% of the population is LGBT. And Dr Qazi Rahman, a lecturer in cognitive biology at Queen Mary University, who is looking into that controversial gay gene, recently found that 35-40% of women have experienced either a same-sex sexual experience or desire.

The question is, if there are that many lesbians and bisexual women around, why are there so few young, out lesbians and bisexual women in the public eye? Besides Ellen Page, we’ve got Nicola Adams the Olympian boxer, Romy from The xx and Amber Heard (who’s mostly known as Johnny Depp’s arm-candy), Jessie J, Samantha Ronson and two of Stooshe. And of course, there's Cara Delevingne and Michelle Rodriguez, who, just by existing as a lesbian couple, being publically affectionate, have silently outed themselves in a way that carries a lot more significance than you'd expect. Women we'd always suspected of being a bit like us are a bit like us, and to have your gaydar, your survival tool as a woman attracted to other women, validated, is pretty exciting. However, compare that list to the number of young, out gay men in the public eye and there’s a huge disparity.

I used to think that a woman coming out was only important to young gay people or to people who were isolated from gay communities. But after watching Ellen Page come out, I realised that I need lesbian role models, too. I’m 26, out to everyone I know, live in London - home to one of the most vibrant and thriving gay scenes in the world – in a country that is about to let me marry another woman. I found the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Ellen Page’s speech by the mainstream so heartening – and it made me realise how much I’d been missing it previously. Because how can our differences be celebrated if we don’t exist? And maybe if there are more lesbians in the public eye, some of the mysticism and stereotypes that still exist around our sexuality will be dispelled.

And if I feel bereft of lesbian role models, what does the 13-year-old girl in Russia think right now?

The great thing about my gay friends is that we never really talk about being gay. I don’t know when they realised they were gay, what they consider sex, or how they came out to their parents. However, some straight people, within a short time of meeting me, will ask me about all of the above. And yeah, I’m cool with answering it, but I shouldn’t have to. When I’m with my gay friends I can just…be. Same goes for when I’m at gay clubs. I can kiss another woman without fear of men leering or, worse, people judging or attacking us. Maybe if lesbians weren’t represented as stereotypes – butch angry dykes or faux-lesbians there for men’s attention – then it wouldn’t be so nerve-wracking to just kiss the girl I’m seeing in public.

And if I feel bereft of lesbian role models, what does the 13-year-old girl in Russia think right now? Or even just the 13-year-old girl from a village in Cumbria? Where their identity is questioned so frequently that 9 in 10 gay teens are bulliedbecause of their sexual orientation – and where they’re more likely to be victims of a hate crime?

Now that Ellen has come out, maybe she can inspire other women. Not only young lesbians looking for role models, or lesbians like me in their mid-20s within an established gay community who want some validation of their gaydars, but straight women, too. Ellen has shown a fearless independence by showing that she won’t do what women are supposed to do. She won’t be defined by her sexual availability to men, and that’s refreshing for everyone to see.

And maybe, just maybe, she could inspire other lesbians in the public eye to come out, the ones we know are closeted. The ones who ‘lie by omission’, the ones who will happily make money from their LGBT fans, but not return the favour. Here’s hoping.

*Jodie Foster gave a sort-of coming out speech when collecting her Cecil B Demille Award at the 2013 Golden Globes, building up to it then announcing ‘I’m single’ before explaining that her privacy is of utmost importance to her and she felt no need to come out to the public. I respect her decision to maintain some privacy, but the interest in her private life hasn’t only come from straight media looking for an eye-grabbing headline. A lot of gay people would have felt legitimised by her coming out.

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

Picture: Rex

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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