By Shannon Carlin
When Tyler Glenn finally made the decision to come out, he sat down with Ellen DeGeneres. “I think I actually watched all of her interviews right as I was making my announcement,” the Neon Trees frontman told Radio.com. “It was powerful to see the strides that the gay community and gay culture have made in pop culture and society.”
In 1997, Ellen appeared on the cover of TIME next to the rather ho-hum headline, “Yep, I’m Gay,” and let the world know that owning her sexuality had been a “long process.” That process culminated on April 30, 1997 in an episode of her ABC sitcom, Ellen.
For anyone who was still in the closet, Ellen’s choice to come out, especially so publicly, was one giant leap for the LGBT community. Glenn, who was a teenager when Ellen came out of the closet, felt like the ’90s weren’t kind to gay public figures. “There was sort of this taboo nature in coming out in my experience as a teenager, so it gave me a level of fear,” he explained. “I remember when Ellen DeGeneres came out and that was such a huge deal.”
It was so monumental that advertisers like JCPenney and Chrysler refused to buy airtime during that episode and Wendy’s decided they’d prefer not to advertise with her at all, boycotting her next sitcom, The Ellen Show, three years later. JCPenney, of course, would go on to enlist Ellen as their spokesperson in 2012 and even defended the star when the conservative Christian advocacy group One Million Moms asked that she be fired.
Ellen also didn’t work for nearly three years following her big reveal. And it wasn’t until the one-two punch of Dory in Finding Nemo and the debut of her daytime talk show in 2003 that she became the mononymous personality we know now. “Now looking at it,” Glenn said, “when celebrities come out or sports figures come out it’s mentioned and it’s maybe a headline for a day but then people move on.”
Seventeen years later, we bat far fewer eyelashes when an actor or athlete comes out, thanks in part to Ellen’s landmark decision to just tell the truth. When Neil Patrick Harris came out in 2006, no one seemed to question whether he could still pull off his role as Lothario Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother. And Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons, who was quietly outed by the New York Times in the 33rd paragraph of a two-page article online, told New York Magazine recently,“All the reactions I got were positive. And the other positive was that there was almost no reaction at all, which was, for me, the most close-up view of progress I’d ever personally seen. This is less and less interesting by the day.”
But the pop music world still seems to be a bit behind on the gay acceptance front. In his coming out interview with Rolling Stone, Glenn even wondered, “Are we ready for an actual gay pop star, and not just the safe straight guy saying it’s okay?” Two months later, he’s still not sure.
There’s been famous out and proud musicians like Elton John, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Boy George and Adam Lambert. But, Glenn notes, when Lambert–who came out to Rolling Stone in 2009–had a male dancer simulate oral sex on him before kissing a guy during his performance at the 2009 American Music Awards, Good Morning America cancelled his appearance, which was scheduled to happen three days after that performance.
“Maybe that was a sign that the world’s not totally ready for that,” Glenn said. “And it makes me sad because, okay, we have Macklemore, who’s, you know, a straight, white guy rapping and…I really appreciate his statements, but at the same time I wonder, could Mary Lambert, the girl who sings on the “Same Love” track as a lesbian, be a star alone?
“I think the hook of that song really is that chorus that she wrote,” he added in regards to the track Macklemore wrote about his uncle, who is gay. “But for me it’s kind of just analyzing like, ‘Is the world ready to embrace and not worry about sexuality and just get back to listening to songs that are great and stop worrying about it?'”
Glenn says he’s not sure if the music world is ready to look beyond sexual preference just yet, but he’s confident that some day someone will be able to breakthrough into the mainstream as a pop star who is gay and not just a gay pop star.
“I don’t know if I’m the guy,” Glenn said. “I’m not claiming to be.”
Watch the interview above to see Glenn talk about why he identifies with the HBO show Looking, technology’s weird influence on love and why music is, and will always be, his ultimate crush.
Neon Trees kick off their first tour behind their recently released album, Pop Psychology, on May 13 in Chicago, Il.