Sunday, April 18, 2010

Coming Out

I've been thinking a lot about the second to last Ugly Betty episode. In it, Betty's 16-year-old nephew Justin, who has recently understood that he is gay (something viewers knew from the first episode, but he was only 13 then), comes out to his working class Latino family.

I love the subtle way the writers handled the storyline, even if their vision might still be a fairy tale in most families of gay teens. I was moved by the matter-of-fact way Justin's mother, grandfather, aunt and uber macho soon-to-be stepfather fold in this new piece of information about their beloved child. They even plan a surprise celebration for him, with rainbow flags and streamers and cakes and posters, until Betty's coworker and friend Marc, also gay, comes in and rips down the flag and sternly admonishes the family that they are taking Justin's moment away, that they have to wait for him to feel comfortable telling them.

"But we want him to know we support him," Justin's mother Hilda protests. "Studies show that if gay boys aren't supported by their mothers, they will never form lasting relationships." Mark exits, heart aching, because his mother has never accepted his sexual orientation (which of course is why he has transferred his filial loyalty, with archly comic results, to the scheming Wilhelmina, played to perfection by Vanessa L. Williams).

To say my daughter is an Ugly Betty fan is to understate the case. She so identifies with Betty (played by America Ferrara) that for an assignment in which she had to write about a person who inspires her and why, she wrote about this fictional character. "The show Ugly Betty is all about dreaming big, having faith in yourself, and never giving up," she wrote. "Yes, Betty is a fictional character, but for me, the lessons imparted by her resilience and optimism translate powerfully to the real world."

She already has the DVD collection of all but the final season, so of course, I was watching the Wednesday night countdown to the finale with her. We both found tears on our faces as we watched Justin (played by Mark Indelicato) struggle to accept his feelings for his friend Austin, sure that his family would be appalled by his dawning knowledge of himself.

There was something so poignant about the love and acceptance that were waiting to enfold him once he declared himself. And the writers had him do so in such a beautifully understated way, at his mother's wedding, when he turned to Austin, extended his hand, and walked onto the dance floor with him for a waltz. As Justin's arms circled Austin for the slow dance, Hilda looked over her new husband's shoulder and smiled contentedly, because she knew her son was happy.

I felt as I was watching the episode that I was witnessing a watershed moment in television history. So now I have to go back and watch all those Ugly Betty seasons that have so captivated my daughter. Belatedly, I have glimpsed the grace and humanity of this series that so inspires my girl.

(Photo courtesy of ABC)

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