Portia, Ellen, Oprah, and coming out for suicide prevention

Sexuality and suicide risk

Posted Nov 03, 2010

When interviewed by Oprah Winfrey this week on The Oprah Show, actress Portia de Rossi talked about her new memoir, Unbearable Lightness, but also about her sexuality, acceptance by her family, and an internal struggle about whether coming out would destroy her acting career.

The height of de Rossi's struggle occurred at the same time that another Hollywood actress was making the decision to come out. De Rossi's wife, Ellen DeGeneres, came out via her sitcom and in real life in 1997.

In the interview that aired Monday afternoon, Oprah reminded her audience that when DeGeneres came out, she was "vilified." Recounting what happened after she played the therapist on the coming out episode of Ellen, Oprah shared: "I got more hate mail for playing the therapist on that show than I ever received in my career."

And de Rossi reminded us that DeGeneres lost her sitcom almost immediately after coming out.

1997. Such a long time ago, yet...

In real life and on this blog, I have been clear that linking being gay to being suicidal is a slippery slope. Many people who are gay are not suicidal, and telling the story that being gay gives you a reason to be suicidal is dangerous.

At the same time, as de Rossi said in her interview, "hiding your sexuality is the most horrible way to live." She advocates for more people to come out so that the stigma of being gay decreases and so that young people know that being gay is not a reason to take your own life.

It shouldn't have taken multiple deaths of young people to make a bunch of old people come out. But it did. The question for me is, what difference will it all make? Did it, or will it, change anything?

I can't quite describe how I felt when I read about an Arkansas man who Facebooked his hatred of gay people, and then said that opposition to his posts (which essentially said that people who are gay should kill themselves) was "blown out of proportion." It's even more difficult for me to know that this man isn't the only person who would feel that a social forum with far-reaching tentacles would be a place to air his true feelings - he's just the only one who made the news.

So, one thing that has changed is that people are talking more openly about sexuality. What used to be behind-closed-door conversations are now very much out in the open (for better or worse).

It actually makes me really happy to see people talking about sexuality so openly, basically being forced to figure out a way to say words like "lesbian" without tripping all over themselves, and getting emotional about something that's quite literally of life and death importance. To the hopeful part of me, it means that we might just be at a tipping point, one that we certainly weren't at in 1997.

In which direction we tip remains to be seen. It can't just be celebrities who are ready to talk and to be accepting. It has to be parents, friends, co-workers, and bosses, siblings, children, school principals, and presidents. If it's really going to get better, it's going to take all of us to make it better.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved