Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush's 'Cowboys pal-around' reveals the cost of acceptance

NBC News Opinions 2 months ago

Politics isn’t a friendly game for those of us who exist at the margins. And, yet, this is precisely the analogy Ellen DeGeneres used to defend her friendship with former President George W. Bush, a man who spent his eight years in the Oval Office passing and upholding anti-LGBT policies.

“Why is a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president?” DeGeneres quipped rhetorically Tuesday during the opening monologue of CBS' “Ellen DeGeneres Show,” oversimplifying the criticism she received online after she was spotted sitting next to Bush on Sunday at the Dallas Cowboys game into a rivalry between identities.

More than two decades ago, DeGeneres did a courageous thing. She came out at a time when essentially everyone in Hollywood was straight — or pretending to be straight. In doing so, she put her comedy career on the line. A year after coming out on television, her show was canceled. (ABC denied the cancellation had anything to do with DeGeneres sexual orientation.)

That was then. Today, DeGeneres is not only famous, she is incredibly wealthy. And she has developed a global brand that is both unfailingly positive and predictably safe. She’s not a radical, so there’s no danger that seating her next to a former president like Bush would result in confrontation or debate. (Remember when she defended another “friend,” Kevin Hart?)

“When we were invited I was aware I’d be surrounded by people with very different views and beliefs,” she noted on the show, “and I’m not talking about politics. I was rooting for the Packers — and, get this, everybody in the Cowboys suite was rooting for the Cowboys.”

You’re not playing for the home team, Ellen. We get it.

Within this sporty frame, her friendship with the former president is recast as innocuous and inconsequential (It’s only a game!). And games aren’t real. They’re fun.

DeGeneres is not unique in equating politics with sports — just look at the media and how they report on presidential campaigns. “The race for the White House!” is CNN’s exclamatory mantra. There’s a new poll every day charting who’s “winning” or “leading” the pack.

“Here’s the thing: I’m friends with George Bush,” DeGeneres explained in her monologue. “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK.”

But here’s the thing: Politics is not a football game. LGBT lives are not toys to be tossed around for entertainment.

Context matters, especially when it is broadcast on national television: Ellen DeGeneres is the world’s most famous lesbian. George W. Bush is a straight, white, cisgender man who conscientiously fronted his administration’s agenda to diminish and prevent any modicum of rights and benefits being afforded to LGBT Americans in the 2000s.

In 2004, for example, he announced his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which aimed to “protect” the institution of marriage by limiting it to “the union of a man and a woman.” In his endorsement of the amendment, Bush implied that gay marriage is harmful to society: “Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society.” Later, in 2008, his administration refused to support the United Nations’ declaration condemning acts of homophobia — voting against the measure alongside Russia and China.

DeGeneres’ nacho-sharing pal-around was criticized by those of us who remember this not-so-distant history, who remember the policies and values espoused by Bush’s administration. This history looms especially large this week, as the Supreme Court hears multiple cases on LGBT protections and rights in the workplace.

“Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them,” she explained. “When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

These words sound good. But what does “be kind” really mean? Who does it work for, whose ideology does it uphold, and what power does it service?

“Be kind” is the mashed potatoes of words on a plate of respectability politics. For those of us within the LGBT community, as well as for people in minority communities, the request to “be kind” is a demand for silence. It is a demand for tolerance of hate and discrimination. It is a demand for complicity. It is bending oneself into the mold of likability defined by a man-centered, straight-centered culture.

DeGeneres, as she joked, just wanted to “keep up with the Joneses,” the mythical gateway family to social acceptance, as well as the name of the family that owns the Cowboys. Doubling down on her message in her monologue, DeGeneres revealed the cost of this acceptance: integrity.

She made it a point to quote a tweet supporting her friendship: "Ellen and George Bush together makes me have faith in America again.”

But what America is that?

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