Coming out. For most gay/bi men it’s a rite of passage, a bright line dividing our lives before from our lives after. It’s dramatic, traumatic, liberating, terrifying, empowering. Everyone who’s come out has their own story; they’re a staple of first date conversations.
With coming out being such an important component of our gay identities, it’s not surprising that when television and mainstream movies began telling gay stories that the coming out story would be one that was often told. Sometimes these would come from shows and films with serious social positions (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Making Love) while others were unexpectedly deep episodes of otherwise fluff series (Carter Country, Gimme a Break!).
As openly gay people became more commonplace and gay characters and stories became more complex, coming out scenes and episodes became rarer. Gay characters were often openly gay from their introductions and the drama, or comedy, of the character came not from their coming out but from the same sort of character situations as their straight counterparts.
In observance of National Coming Out Day, here are some memorable coming out moments, episodes and stories from film and television:
Trauma – “Masquerade”
This short-lived 2009 series followed the lives of EMTs in San Francisco, including Tyler Briggs (Kevin Rankin), who had drifted through jobs in several cities before settling in the city three years earlier. In the episode “Masquerade“, Tyler volunteers himself and his partner Boone (Derek Luke) to work in the Castro, San Francisco’s gay neighborhood, on Halloween. Boone is homophobic despite being a long-time city resident, vocally disapproving of a man giving out candy to trick-or-treaters while in drag and reacting violently when a man touches him on the street.
After treating one half of a gay couple following an explosion at a club, Boone remarks that they act like an old married couple, to which Tyler replies that they are an old married couple. Boone then compares the revelers to Sodom and Gomorrah and says “Sin kills.” Tyler tells him, “I didn’t see any sinners here tonight. I saw people, just trying to live. You know these streets were full tonight with people who were beat up when they were a kid for being gay. Kicked out of their house, disowned by their parents at fourteen, and just knowing that a place like this existed…there was a better alternative to offin’ yourself because you can’t change who you are. That is why they come here. That’s why I came here.” Boone initially has no response but at episode’s end he’s cleaning the ambulance, a job he normally leaves to Tyler, as a show of respect.
It’s an amazingly powerful scene that touches on how gay people who may have been deprived of the families of their birth forge new families within the community. It also addresses in a subtle fashion the role that religion can play in how African Americans might perceive homosexuality (Boone is African American) and, along with later interactions between the partners in later episodes, demonstrates how when we come out to others they have their own coming out process. Boone didn’t instantly, unquestioningly come to terms with Tyler’s sexuality but grew to understand and accept it over the remainder of the season.
Happy Endings – “Mein Coming Out”
AfterElton readers drew Happy Endings‘ Max Blum (Adam Pally) to our collective bosom from the moment he first appeared on-screen. Snarky “regular gay” Max was a refreshing change of pace in the portrayal of gay characters, talking about his hookups and guys he found attractive exactly the same way his straight counterparts do.
So how can a gay character that together not be out to his folks? For the same reason a lot of us probably weren’t, because he’s afraid of how they might react. He’s also afraid that they’ll start fixing him up with their friends’ single daughters so he has Penny (Casey Wilson) act as his beard when they’re in town. When she can’t make it one night, first Jane (Eliza Coupe) and then Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) steps in. Hijinks inevitably ensue and Max finally comes out. His parents are completely accepting and immediately suggest several of their friends’ gay sons to fix him up with. Dave (Zachary Knighton), whom they think is gay (because Max told them he was after they found Max’s gay porn stash under his mattress), rescues him by posing as his boyfriend.
Ellen – “The Puppy Episode”
No gay character’s coming out was more hyped or more anticipated. After three seasons of mediocre performance in the ratings, Ellen and its creative team were adrift with little idea what to do with the series or the character Ellen Morgan. One executive producer suggested, since Ellen Morgan showed little interest in dating or relationships, that she get a puppy. It was from this rather inane suggestion that “The Puppy Episode” took its name.
Ellen DeGeneres had been broadly hinting for almost a year that she, her character Ellen Morgan or both would be coming out. After months of negotiations with ABC and its parent company, Disney, ABC announced in March 1997 that Ellen Morgan would be coming out. The media buzz immediately went out of control. Guest stars from Billy Bob Thornton to Demi Moore to Oprah Winfrey lined up to make guest appearances. GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign organized “Come Out With Ellen” house parties across the country, sending out thousands of party kits. DeGeneres appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in April 1997 under the headline “Yep, I’m Gay” and she and then-girlfriend Ann Heche appeared together on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Finally, on April 30, 1997, some 42 million people tuned in to see Ellen Morgan say to guest star Laura Dern, and through an inadvertent triggering of a PA system, an airport full of onlookers, “I’m gay.”
“The Puppy Episode” has been credited with paving the way for such gay and gay-inclusive programming as Will and Grace, The L Word and Ugly Betty and for helping to reduce societal prejudice against gay people. “The Puppy Episode” won two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award and DeGeneres won a GLAAD Media Award in 1998. Sadly, the series would never again reach this episode’s heights and, amidst criticism that the series was now “too gay,” was canceled after just one more season.
Oh, and I understand that there’s a certain lesbian-interest website that took some inspiration from Ellen’s coming out, as well.
Roseanne – Leon Carp
When Roseanne debuted in 1988, no one would have predicted that a show about a blue-collar family from central Illinois would become one of the queerest shows on television, and it began with Leon Carp. Played by Martin Mull, Leon was introduced as Roseanne Connor‘s boss at the mall restaurant where she waitressed. In an early appearance, Leon is waiting at the restaurant for a date to arrive.
As Roseanne and fellow waitress Bonnie speculate on what sort of woman would date him, Leon’s male date appears and Roseanne and Bonnie exchange knowing glances.
Leon’s coming out laid the groundwork for a line of queer characters, including Nancy (Sandra Bernhard), who came out as a lesbian but eventually declared herself bisexual,