Ellen DeGeneres, a Beacon of Gay Acceptance, Is Showing Her Privilege

Being tolerant doesn’t mean you accept intolerance, it means you fight against it by calling it out and being better.

I’ve always admired Ellen DeGeneres. She’s a massive comedic talent, a skilled host, and an outspoken advocate and philanthropist. Plus, she seems like someone you’d love to joke around with at a bar or while watching television.

She’s broken down barriers and made a Herculean comeback in show business after being ostracized for coming out at a time when many celebrities remained firmly in the closet at the urging of agents, publicists, and industry leaders. She helped shape the conversation and influence the fight for LGBTQ rights, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

For the American viewers who tuned into her 1990s sitcom, Ellen, Ellen was a beacon of gayness, albeit an unchallenging, usually asexual beacon. She was safe for her audiences and pushed an “I’m just like you!” narrative. The idea that gay people are just like her viewers was necessary, enormously influential, and very effective.

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“The Puppy Episode” on Ellen, when Ellen’s character came out.

While Ellen’s series and her portrayal of a nonconfrontational, nonfrightening queer woman did wonders for many LGBTQ people, it could not bring everyone along. Many vulnerable members of our community were left behind in this narrative, notably queer people of color. Today, some of the same audiences who flick on Ellen’s talk show in their living rooms are still hopping mad about trans people using bathrooms. But Ellen, she’s relatable.

In 2018, after a 15-year absence from the world of stand-up, Ellen delivered a new comedy special for Netflix entitled Relatable, in which she strongly professed her belief that we have more in common with one another than that which separates us. It’s a powerful and beautiful sentiment that was shared by President Obama many times. Kindness and commonality can cross the aisle and heal social and political divides.

In normal times, this message of unity and understanding would have struck an inspiring chord with the masses. But now, Donald Trump is president.

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President Obama awards Ellen the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Our country was already starkly divided between those who believed in compassion, progress, and facts, and those who voted Republican and watched Fox News. That isn’t a sweeping over-simplification of the situation; it’s an accurate description of how the election of the first black President sent the Republican Party and its media surrogates into a tailspin out of traditional conservative politics and into racist conspiracy theories, rule-breaking, and lies. Donald Trump saw this moment and “moved on her like a bitch.”

As Trump exploited and exacerbated the razor-sharp rift in our country, abetted by a spineless GOP, the rules of cordial political discourse were tossed out the window. Republicans said that this was just politics as usual—but it wasn’t. Instead, we were witnessing a cold and calculated attack on our democracy to hoard power and hurt the most vulnerable of our society (all cloaked in the protection of “religious freedom,” of course).

Ellen did her share of speaking out on certain topics when it came to politics and social justice, but she still clung to this idea that we can get past political differences and still be friends. She seemed to have fallen out of touch with what was really happening on the ground below her castle in the cloud of privilege.

We saw this with her eyebrow-raising defense of Kevin Hart’s outrageous anti-LGBTQ tweets. And this past weekend, we witnessed Ellen in a photo sitting and laughing with anti-LGBTQ, former president, and war criminal George W. Bush in a luxury box at a Dallas Cowboys football game. In her October 8 monologue on her talk show, she admitted to being friends with Bush and addressed the backlash to the photo, reminding viewers that people of different political and social backgrounds sharing a laugh during a football game is exactly what America needs right now. I am sure that this made the Trump-supporting women who watch her show feel all warm and tingly with patriotism and validation.

The problem is that discrimination and ignorance are not “political differences”; they are flaws. Also, being a war criminal goes beyond politics. It is inexcusable criminality.

George W. Bush and former VP Dick Cheney were horrific human beings who worked tirelessly to take away or block the rights of LGBTQ people, women, and people of color. They are guilty of war crimes, lying to the American people, killing innocent children overseas, and allowing the groundwork to be laid for Tea Party Republicans and Trumpists to take over their party and subvert our democracy.

To say “we all have different views” is almost as baseless as the GOP talking point that “the liberals who ask for tolerance aren’t tolerant of my beliefs.” Being tolerant doesn’t mean you accept intolerance, it means you fight against it by calling it out and being better.

Trying to defend what is happening in our country as normal political discourse is wildly misguided. It’s like those Democrats who go home for the holidays to their Trump-loving family and don’t realize that by participating in the “we don’t talk politics” charade, they are silently signaling to these folks that their abhorrent support for discrimination, corruption, greed, and divisiveness is A-OK as long as they still get them a cute gift for Christmas. It’s like that “hate the sin, love the sinner” nonsense that many Christians try to push.
 

Indeed, Trump has set a new low for Republicans, but it doesn’t erase or alter how awful George W. Bush was in a multitude of other ways. Ellen should know better than to allow herself to be a prop in a revisionist telling of history and in the rehabilitation of a dangerous and deceitful man. The same goes for First Lady Michelle Obama and her candy (although there is an argument to be made that her situation, as a former first lady, is much more complex than Ellen’s, as people expect a certain level of presidential, professional civility).

We can have friends who don’t share our beliefs, but we must draw a moral line in the sand when it comes to those who behaved despicably and harbor the worst of ill-intentions.

Ellen DeGeneres does not speak for nor does she represent the entire LGBTQ community. She is one human being with flaws and scars. However, she does carry the weight of massive privilege and entitlement from her position of power. Fame can be a gift or a curse, but how you use it is the real test of your righteousness. Whom you choose to surround yourself with speaks volumes about your constitution—and how you defend those choices is a revelation of your true values.

Scott Nevins is an award-winning TV personality and host, comedian, political/news contributor, LGBTQ and HIV awareness activist, and godfather.
@ScottNevins