Leaving the gym on the afternoon before the Ellen episode, I ran into my friend Brick. Brick is a straight man. He makes alimony payments. He sells cars for a living. A lot of times, Brick’s gym socks do not precisely match.
On that particular Wednesday afternoon, Brick waved at me across the gym parking lot. He was screwing his removable CB antenna back into his car. “Yo, man,” Brick shouted in that attractive, half-belchy way that he has. “Whatcha doin’ tonight? Gonna watch that Ellen thing?”
Walking across the parking lot, I said, “Of course, I’m watching that Ellen thing, Brick.” I said, “I consider it a rite of passage.”
Brick said, “Right. Yeah. Me too.”
I said, “Brick, you’re going to watch Ellen?”
Brick said, “Man, you think I’m gonna miss that?” He stuffed a wad of chewing tobacco inside his lower lip and rolled it around over his teeth. “Two chicks,” he said. “Man. That’s gotta be hot.”
I told Brick, “I don’t think you want to get your hopes up.”
Brick said, “Man, there oughta be more shit like that on TV.”
I said, “Somehow, Brick, I’m not exactly comforted to know that you feel that way.”
Brick said, if I wanted to, I could come to his condo and we could watch the Ellen episode together. He said we could drink some beer. I told him I was going to watch the Ellen episode at a party at a bar with a lot of gay people. I said, “It’s springtime. I’m probably going to drink vodka and cranberry juice.”
Brick asked me if I thought there would be lesbians at the Ellen episode party. I said, “I think that’s a pretty safe bet.”
Brick asked if he could tag along. I told him he should go back to his condo and open a Bud.
There were indeed lesbians at the party, but there were a lot of gay men there too. I had told myself, before I even went to the party, that the Ellen episode would probably end up being pretty much like the Murphy Brown episodeall hype and editorials and boycotts and fizzle. The difference, however, was that there even was an Ellen episode party. I do not think that, on the night of the Murphy Brown episode, unwed mothers nationwide got together in bars.
On the other hand, unwed mothers were awareas was virtually everyone else in America, Dan Quayle exceptedthat Murphy Brown was a fictional character. They knew that, whatever they saw on television that night, it was something that somebody in a writers’ meeting somewhere had made up.
What the gay and lesbian people knew in that bar on that Wednesday night was that the Ellen on the screen was, for the first time, the person that gay and lesbian people knew she always had been. When she appeared on the television, the gay and lesbian people shushed one anothernot so much to make sure they heard the punchlines as to make sure that they were not simply imagining that such punchlines were actually being said. They leaned forward, marveling that, for once, they were not being forced to play that complex game of emotional switch-and-bait at which all gay people have learned to be adept. The awkwardness of Ellen’s first datea first date that has come far too late, a first date on which nothing happens but everything happens too, a first date that leads to a first, leaden crush that has no hope of getting off the grounddid not have to be translated. This was a moment every gay person in that room could understand and smile at and wince at, all at once. This was a moment of adolescent awkwardness that only gay people are forced to experience at age 35.
This was a moment in which, for once, straight people were being forced to do the translating. They might pride themselves on understanding the human comedy of the moment. That does not mean they understood why it made gay people smile.
After the Ellen episode was over, the TVs in the bar continued to run. I perched on a barstool, close to a screen, listening as the real Ellen’s parents answered Diane Sawyer’s questions and said all the right, but still realistic, things about having a daughter who is a lesbian. Two women were standing at the bar next to me. They were leaning against one another, their necks bent so that they could hear.
When Ellen’s mother had finished talking, I turned to one of the women and said, “I guess that makes Ellen DeGeneres pretty lucky.”
The woman said, “I don’t think she’s lucky at all. All people should be valued for the human beings they are.”
I said, “I still think she’s lucky. My father and I, we don’t talk all that much any-more.”
The other woman leaned forward and stared at me. “What are you trying to say, man?” she asked me. “Are you trying to say you wanta watch some other TV show?”
The next afternoon I went to the gym to work off my hangover. This time, in the parking lot, Brick walked up to me. He spit his wad of tobacco on the asphalt and said, “Man, how about that Ellen thing?”
I said, “Yeah, I thought Oprah’s wig was pretty wonderful.”
Brick said, “Man, you don’t think that means Oprah’s a lesbian too, do you?”
I said, “Probably not, Brick. Don’t you think that’s the sort of question you ought to be asking about Laura Dern?”
Brick said, “Laura Dern, man, she is hot. I’m crazy about that thing she does with her shoulders.”
I said, “Brick, I think that’s called scoliosis.”
Brick was rummaging through his gym bag. He said, “I bet things got really wild at your party.”
I said, “Not really. Mostly, people drank a lot. Then they went home.”
“Man,” Brick said, “that really sucks.” Brick had found his combination lock. He was twirling it on his right index finger while he talked.
I said, “I guess what really sucks is that nobody was asking the really important question. Nobody was asking what in hell is going to happen when Ellen has to have another episode next week.”
Brick let the lock fall still in his palm. “Man,” he said, “I never thought about that.” Then he looked me deep in the eyes and said, “You think they’re gonna let her have a girlfriend?” Brick started rolling the knob of the lock back and forth between his fingers.
“Man,” he said, “that could really be hot.”