The gifts Ellen DeGeneres and her staff bestow upon surprised audience members at her daytime talk show tapings are grand: all-expenses-paid vacations, cars, and checks massive in both physical size and value.
Bryden Giving and his mother Michelle Messer were on the receiving end of one of those gargantuan checks (more on that in a minute) when they appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in January 2019. But the real gift DeGeneres offered the family didn’t cost a single penny: She gave it to them simply by being herself.
The 25-year-old Minnesota-based occupational therapist and photographer credits DeGeneres, who made history when she came out publicly in 1997, with helping his family understand and accept him as a gay man. Her high profile had showed Giving’s family that openly gay people can live happy, full lives.
“My mom didn’t have any gay friends, my grandpa didn’t have any gay friends, they have no knowledge of queer life,” he told HuffPost. “The primary news channel they watch is Fox News and I think there’s a lot of misinformation about the queer community.”
It was the lack of knowledge and exposure that Giving said made the news of his coming out difficult for Messer to swallow. She struggled with his sexuality for a few years, especially so when it came to sharing the news with Giving’s grandfather, who is also a huge fan of DeGeneres.
“When my mom told him, he said, ‘Well, I love the ‘Ellen’ show, I watch it every day, and look how happy she is,’” Giving recalled. “‘Bryden deserves to be just as happy and so do you.’”
His grandfather’s acceptance was the final step needed for Messer to come to terms with Giving’s sexuality. And Giving knew he had to find a way share their story with DeGeneres.
After sending a letter to the show’s producers every week for four months, Giving and his mom were invited to attend a taping of the show in Los Angeles. They assumed they were just going to be audience members.
“We met with one of her producers to get the lowdown before being in the audience,” he said. The producer reiterated that while there were no plans for them to be called on stage, if they were ― for instance, to play one of the show’s popular games ― there was one thing to keep in mind. “He said, ‘You’re not getting called on stage, but in the rare chance you do, the only thing to remember is don’t hug Ellen too hard because she has a really bad lower back.’”
Moments later, Giving and Messer found themselves giving DeGeneres a (gentle) hug after the talk show host read Giving’s letter aloud to the audience before ― spoiler alert! ― inviting him and his mom on stage.
“This entire experience was for my mom,” Giving said. “She and I are really close ― we’re best friends ― but every now and then she’ll feel bad for how she first reacted ... The ‘Ellen’ show was a way to say ‘I love you, I forgave you a long time ago. I don’t think about it anymore and I want you to forgive yourself.’”
And Messer wasn’t the only one who got a little love from DeGeneres. She sent Giving’s grandfather, Don, a special hello and he “had to rewind it like five times, he was so over the moon that Ellen gave him a shoutout.”
Before their time with DeGeneres ended, the talk show host gave them one of those aforementioned checks for $10,000 to spend on a family trip.
Today, Giving, who just moved in with his partner, and his family are closer than ever. He hopes that sharing his story will help others see that when it comes to coming out, it’s not always black and white.
“Often on the internet there are these two different stories: You have the parents who are super accepting right off the bat and then you have the terrible experiences where they no longer talk,” Giving said. “I love how with this story, it wasn’t a good experience. ... But through education and my mom’s powerhouse unconditional love to try to understand me and come to terms with it to keep our family together, we kept our relationship. There isn’t a direct linear path.”
Check out the clip above and read more about Giving’s story on his website.