As part of National Coming Out Week, Judith Levine wanted to discuss how the experience of “coming out” has changed in the 21st century.
On Tuesday afternoon, Levine, a gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor hosted a screening and panel discussion of Ellen Degeneres’ “The Puppy Episode,” a two-part series of episodes in the ’90s comedy sitcom, “Ellen.” In the episode, Ellen Morgan, the main character, opens up about being a lesbian.
The screening, which was shown to an audience of about 30 students in Anderson Hall, originally aired in April 1997 and had 42 million viewers.
“We wanted to have a conversation about what has changed over these past 20 years and the ways the episodes do and do not still represent people’s experience,” Levine said.
At Temple, the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership is putting on several events in conjunction with National Coming Out Week. These events, which include “Queer Lunch,” “Queer Bingo” and NCOW Fest, will run through Friday. NCOW is a nationwide initiative meant to celebrate the LGBTQ community.
In the episode of “Ellen,” Degeneres’ character drops numerous hints about her sexuality, confessing to her friend, Susan, “He’s so great, he’s so smart and funny, gorgeous. He’s everything. I mean, why am I not interested?”
The truth behind Degeneres’ sexuality was not officially revealed until she said, “I’m gay” into a microphone at the airport in an attempt to communicate her feelings before her friend Susan, for whom she had feelings, left for Pittsburgh.
“In this episode, she literally makes an announcement on the loudspeaker,” said Brad Windhauser, an English professor who also teaches a course titled Gay and Lesbian Lives, to the panel. “It’s not like she’s quietly doing this, and at the time I think this was important because we didn’t have that kind of exposure.”
By the time Ellen Degeneres revealed her sexuality to the public in the late ’90s, several movies with LGBTQ characters were popular in mainstream media.
In 1993, Tom Hanks played a gay man who contracted HIV/AIDS in the film “Philadelphia,” and in 1997, Rupert Everett played the role of Julia Robert’s gay best friend in the romantic film “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
After the revelation of her sexuality, Degeneres received backlash. In the months after, Degeneres received multiple death threats, and in 1998 — one year after the coming out episode — her sitcom “Ellen” was discontinued.
Twenty years later, Windhauser and Levine are asking whether today’s society would have a similar reaction to a prominent celebrity coming out.
“Today, I don’t think it would have the same impact as 20 years ago because it was a much different political landscape,” Windhauser said. “I think watching that episode from today’s context, viewers are kind of like, ‘Why was this a big deal?’”
Degeneres came out in 1997, only one year after President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
In 2013, this law was determined unconstitutional. Edie Windsor, a 1950 CLA alumna who passed away last month, spearheaded the effort to overturn DOMA.
“[Today,] I really feel like we have to respect people’s differences,” said Rebecca Alpert, senior associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, who was on the discussion panel. “People come from different communities and they have different needs. … It seems to me that the thing that we have the most difficulty with is differences among us as well as differences between us.”
Jake Barks, a freshman in the College of Public Health, said those barriers could be conquered by educating people who don’t understand the LGBTQ community.
“It is also important to keep an intersectional view open to the community, which would help members within the community to understand each individual’s own struggles with being accepted,” Barks said.