Mother Ellen DeDzheneris about coming-out of her daughter, same-sex marriage and the civil rights movement
Betty DeGeneres, 82, is a gay rights campaigner and the mother of the world's most famous lesbian, not necessarily in that order.
Ellen DeGeneres has a TV audience of at least 4 million viewers per episode in the US alone and is here in Australia to film segments for her show.
Betty is here, too, and addressed a PFLAG meeting at Westmead last Saturday. PFLAG is a worldwide organisation providing information and support to the families and friends of gay and lesbians.*
Betty says it was hard enough for Ellen to come out once, at age 20, to her family – let alone a second time, in her 30s, to 36 million people. That time it almost cost her everything.
And Betty is keen to get a message through to Julia Gillard.
You're outspoken about bullying in schools. Some feel our politicians' failure to support marriage equality is bullying. ''Yes it is! It's all bullying. I'd love to get a message through to your Prime Minister. Maybe she should pay attention to what's going on in the United States right now! A lot of people are gonna find out they were on the wrong side of history. Marriage equality will be OK.
''It's like the Civil Rights movement in the US. Years ago our situation was awful. You couldn't have marriage between two different races. Ridiculous! Today it's such past history.
''Your leaders should pay attention to what's really happening and get with it. All bullying is bad.
''My friend, a retired English teacher, 92, said to me: 'Ellen was bullied.' I thought quickly back to her school days. She didn't come out til after high school and she wasn't bullied at school. But my friend said when Ellen came out on her sitcom and all the advertisers pulled out and she lost her show, that was bullying. By the ones who had more power.''
A gay child comes out in their own time. The parent can be caught off-guard and ill-prepared. What's it like for parents suddenly outed as parents of gay children? How ostracised can they be made to feel? ''That's a very interesting question. I've never had a question like that. Ellen told me she was gay a long time ago, when she was 20. After that, all our family knew and it was fine with everyone. But as she became more famous she wasn't out publicly. I was afraid I would out her. I couldn't join PFLAG until Ellen came out because it'd be, you know, what's Ellen's mother doing in PFLAG?!''
Was there a moment you wished Ellen had been straight? ''No, because I loved her and when she told me she was gay I still loved her. The first thing I thought was she'd suddenly be an object of bigotry and discrimination. You just have to help end the bigotry and help educate people.''
How can a parent instil a sense of affirmation and pride in a gay child, when they're bombarded with daily messages that say you're not OK? ''That's so awful. Having a good relationship with them to begin with helps tremendously. Always have faith in them, always stand behind them.''
How did Ellen come out to you? ''We were walking on the beach together at my sister's house in Mississippi, just an hour from New Orleans. Ellen stopped and I turned round. She was crying and I said what's wrong? She said: 'Mum, I'm gay.' She was crying because she didn't know how I'd take it. I hugged her and all these thoughts immediately ran through my mind, you know, my girl-next-door daughter will suddenly be an object of bigotry. It was all I could think about. That wasn't OK with me.
''And now kids are coming out at high school and junior high and being able to admit who they are. Not then.''
You've been on your daughter's show a lot, with countless standing ovations. To the average viewer it looks like you've got it all together. Thousands of mums would watch and think it's not that easy for me. What can you say to those who really struggle? ''I'd say get yourself to a PFLAG meeting. That's Parents and Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. It's the most wonderful organisation and you have it in Australia. We have it all over the United States. They have monthly meetings and parents like me who have gay kids and we love them. You know, I also have a son [Vance] who isn't gay but he can't help it. Parents who are struggling can get to a PFLAG meeting or log onto pflagaustralia.org.au and hear the stories of parents who are going through what you're going through but they're so OK with it. You have to let your children be who they are.
''When Ellen came out she wrote me a letter. I'd remarried and was living in a different city, she'd gone back to live in New Orleans right after high school. She wrote that she didn't expect me to ever understand. Well, I think I understand. I think I got past that. The more I met all her friends, I liked them and, you know, there was just really no difference.''