‘American Idol’: Coming Out of the Closet with Ellen DeGeneres

The most popular TV show in America is back this week. There are two things I know about this season. First, Ellen DeGeneres will be joining the panel as a judge starting Hollywood week. Second, some of the participants in this singing contest will be gay. If past history is any guide, those contestants will stay officially in the closet while on the show.

It started on season one when Jim Verraros removed any mention of being gay from his show profile. Clay Aiken took second place in season two, but did not talk about his sexuality until five years later. During season seven, we had David Hernandez, whose exit coincided with pictures of him stripping. And, of course, last season gave us Adam Lambert. None of them were ever out on the show itself.

Let me be clear about something. I don’t think that a person’s sexuality is relevant to American Idol. I don’t think that any contestant has an obligation to talk about their personal life. No one should be forced to come out of the closet.

The problem is that it is clear that contestants feel they have to stay in the closet to succeed on the show. Verraros, Hernandez and Lambert were all living openly gay lives before and during their time on American Idol. Yet, for whatever reason, this aspect of their lives was not part of their Idol personas.

I know the conventional wisdom. Voters in the South and Middle America supposedly won’t support a gay contestant. And in order to appeal to all those speed-texting teenage girls, they have to play it straight. Maybe both of these theories are true. If you’re a struggling singer who sees Idol as your best chance to make it in the business, you’re not going to want to be the test case, right?

Except that I don’t believe that the theories are true. Was there anyone who didn’t know Adam Lambert was gay? He came in second. Some are going to argue that his sexuality kept him from winning, but they are conveniently forgetting that Lambert had millions of people voting for him week after week. You want me to believe that the only reason they were comfortable doing that was because they could live under the illusion that he was straight?

All this brings us to the newest American Idol judge. I’m not sure there is a celebrity in the world who understands better than Ellen DeGeneres what it means to live a publicly gay life in America. It was 13 years ago that DeGeneres made the bold decision to use her sitcom as an opportunity to come out of the closet. Within a few months, both the actor and the character she played announced that they were lesbians. This set off a firestorm of controversy that even resulted in sponsors pulling out of the show. DeGeneres seemed to be committing career suicide.

That hasn’t been the case. DeGeneres has an incredibly popular talk show, including with viewers in Middle America. She is honest and open about her sexuality. She doesn’t hide her relationship with Portia de Rossi; in fact, she talks about it all the time. It is just a part of who she is and people really like who she is.

DeGeneres’ decision to out her character on her sitcom changed TV. When is the last time you heard about a sponsor pulling out of a show because of a gay character? It is just not a big deal anymore, and that’s the way it should be. Just this season alone, I’ve watched a gay couple deal with parenthood on Modern Family, a lesbian F.B.I. agent on FlashForward and a gay high school student on Glee.

Yet on American Idol it does become a big deal precisely because gay contestants are not out in the open. The not-so-subtle message to the huge audience, a significant portion of whom are kids and teenagers, is that it is not OK to be gay on the biggest stage in America.

DeGeneres is a huge fan of the show. I assume that she wants these contestants to succeed not only in singing, but also in life. So, if there are any openly gay participants that make it far into this season, I hope that she will help them and the producers figure out a way to let them be their true selves on the show. We know which contestants are married or have kids — why not let us see a committed relationship with someone of the same sex? It doesn’t have to be done in a press conference or in a dramatic announcement. Just make it part of one of the get-to-know-you video packages they show us each week. Every week we get reaction shots of contestants’ families and friends in the audience — why not someone’s partner? (Of course, one place to start would be by identifying de Rossi that way one week.) There are hundreds of opportunities over the course of the five-month contest to let the audience know that a contestant is gay without bashing anyone over the head with it. The alternative is to let internet pictures of the next Adam Lambert give the impression that he is hiding something on the show itself.

I don’t know the best way for American Idol to change its ways. (Though putting an end to the awkward and childish gay innuendo banter that Ryan, Simon and Randy sometimes engage in would be a good start.) Luckily for the show, if there is anyone in America who can help Idol figure out how to make being gay on the show not a big deal, it is Ellen DeGeneres. And she’ll be sitting front and center at that judges’ table.