When Kate McKinnon got up to present the Carol Burnett Award to Ellen DeGeneres at the Golden Globes, I didn’t expect to get choked up. But I did.
As a gay man, yes, seeing a queer person honored in any situation is bound to make me beam with Pride (with a capital “P,” mind you). But it wasn’t DeGeneres who delivered the “OK, time to cry” message to my tear ducts. It was McKinnon’s message about the importance of seeing yourself onscreen and how that reverberates off-screen, too.
She talked (and joked) about lifting weights in her mother’s basement. It was 1997, she said, when Ellen’s self-titled sitcom was at the height of its popularity. She thought to herself, “Am I gay?” She added, “I was, and I still am.” The audience rightly applauded, and McKinnon beamed. But it was a more subdued beam than I expected: Like she still wasn’t sure that declaration would be well-received.
She went on: “That’s a very scary thing to suddenly know about yourself. It’s sort of like doing 23andMe and discovering that you have alien DNA.”
Then it hit me: I used to feel like an alien, too.
I was an alien when I wanted to pick grass instead of chase after the ball during soccer. I was an alien when I wanted to audition for musicals instead of sit through an entire football game. I was an alien when I wasn’t talking or thinking about girls like all the other boys.
“The only thing that made it less scary was seeing Ellen on TV,” McKinnon continued. “She risked her entire life and her entire career in order to tell the truth, and she suffered greatly for it. Of course attitudes change, but only because brave people like Ellen jump into the fire to make them change. And if I hadn’t seen her on TV, I would’ve thought ‘I could never be on TV. They don’t let LGBTQ people on TV.’ And more than that, I would’ve gone on thinking that I was an alien and that I maybe didn’t even have a right to be here.”
Read it back: “I maybe didn’t even have a right to be here.”
McKinnon’s point couldn’t ring any louder: If we can’t see ourselves onscreen, whether we are members of the LGBTQ community, or the black community, or other marginalized groups, we can’t expect to feel valued both onscreen and off.
Maybe I was too scared to seek out LGBTQ pop culture as a child – I’m 27 years old, and Kate McKinnon will turn 36 tomorrow, so it was obviously available. But when I think about all the queer shows on television today, from “Queer Eye” to “Pose” to “Special” and more, not to mention all the series featuring queer characters and actors, I feel grateful. Grateful that so many more children won’t feel like aliens, and hopefully at a younger age than McKinnon and me.
Of course there’s much more work to do to gain further acceptance and appreciation. But the progress made since DeGeneres first came out on her sitcom speaks for its out-and-proud self.
While DeGeneres’ speech didn’t “wow” as much as McKinnon’s, per se, backstage DeGeneres spoke about the importance of the moment. “I think it sends a really powerful message to anyone out there trying to start a career and saying, ‘I’m different,’ ” she said. “You can accomplish a lot. As much as I don’t seem emotional, I’m deeply moved by this.”
Cheers to everyone who feels like an alien out there – and know that you’re anything but.
Contributing: Andrea Mandell
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