By MARY RAITT JORDAN Journal Tribune Staff Writer
Robin Washburn of Kennebunk laughs while watching the coming out episode of the television show "Ellen" at a gathering Wednesday night in a friend's home.
Some of the best comedy is said to spring out of the pits of human despair - the skids, the low points, which all people experience and share at some time in their life.
Those in the gay community know all to well the personal hell and isolation they've been through in coming to terms with their own sexuality - and then the backlash of sharing it with the world and dealing with the societal repercussions. But they also know the joy of "coming out'' and being loved and accepted by people who truly care about them. In retrospect, some gay people say they can look back in some instances at their coming-out experiences and see the humor of certain situations.
Poignant experiences stroked with humor were well-appreciated by a gathering of people watching the "Ellen'' episode at Kate Perkins's home in Kennebunk. Probably the thing that appealed most was how actress Ellen DeGeneres and her writers conveyed the lead character as a person with real feelings, fears and desires. Yet they also enjoyed the comical manner the writers employed to slash myths and labels gay-bashers have developed in their discriminatory rhetoric.
"It's a very real story of a 35-year-old woman who was not consciously aware she was gay ... and she is seeking our acceptance, and to a certain extent we all want to be accepted,'' Perkins said. "The show was great. The more of us that come out, the more our mothers, fathers, sisters and friends are there to support us. There will be less room for people to believe the myths because one of these people will stick up for us and say, `Hey, I know somebody who is gay and that is not true.''
Perkins and her partner, and friends Robin Washburn, Ken Bartuka, Rachel Phipps and Kirsten Platt, tuned in to the well-publicized episode, as well as a follow-up interview with Diane Sawyer, and even late-night clips on the evening news.
"There was so much hype about the show. I was expecting to be let down ... but I was not,'' Bartuka, of Ogunquit, said.
Perkins agreed that the issue of art-imitating-life was carried out successfully.
"I appreciate this as a cultural happening. There was all the hype, which finally started to have its effect on me,'' Perkins said. "This is the first time a gay or lesbian had a lead role on a show. It is like a Hank Aaron or a Tiger Woods being the first to break down certain barriers.''
The group, during the commercial breaks and follow-up discussions, saw parallels about being gay and the civil rights movement. Targets of discriminatinon and hate crimes, they could easily relate experiences as a minority group that is often despised.
"What is different, and Degenerres said this, is that as an African American you and your own family may be discriminated against, but at least you are together. When you are gay you are a minority in your own family."
In Wednesday's show, Ellen was seeking a loving partner, a home with a picket fence, all of the "normal" things. While she achieved satisfaction in finally accepting who she was, she didn't end up with the woman of her dreams ... because the woman she was attracted to was in a stable long-term relationship.
The group watching "Ellen'' liked the way the writers depicted the bittersweet experiences involved with being gay. They look forward to future episodes about how Ellen will tell her parents, as well as her employer.
In real life, members of the group pointed out the emotional and financial hardships involved with coming out. Early on, many teens overwhelmed with the pressure commit suicide. Parents often shame the children out of the family.
As an adult, they say there are battles in attaining equal rights with heterosexuals - discrimination in everything from getting health insurance to buying a house. Many of their friends get fired from jobs.
As for DeGeneres, the show is not signed for the coming season.
"I'll be interested to see what the fallout for her is. Musicians like K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge have fans who love their music and buy their albums, but television has advertisers ... and GM, Chrysler and Wendy's all pulled their sponsorship from the show,'' Perkins said.
On a local level, Perkins says, politically the issue is getting better for people in Maine.
"A few years ago bills would be mentioned for civil rights for gays and it was not taken seriously,'' Perklins said. "But I look at Carolyn Crosby as a symbol of our success. She is waging a full-fledged fight against gays ... because we are at last likely to win our civil rights. There is finally, after 20 years, something to have a battle about.''
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