Almost 20 years ago, the star of her own successful network sitcom took a chance on happiness, and she came out to the world. And in 1997, the political climate was drastically less LGBTQ-friendly (despite how hard that might be to imagine given the current administration). Ellen’s “Puppy Episode” (and subsequent iconic “Yep, I’m Gay!” Time magazine cover and “Oprah” interview) stands out as a watershed moment in cultural and LGBTQ history. Not only was Ellen gay, but she was proud to be gay.
“I always thought I could keep my personal life separate from my professional life,” Ellen, then age 39, told Time. “I mean, I really tried to figure out every way to avoid answering that question for as long as I could. Now, I feel completely comfortable with myself, and I don’t have to be fearful about something damaging my career if it gets out, because now I’m in control of it — sort of.”
The professional backlash hit hard and strong. She lost her television show and much of her popularity, but her words and strength — affirmations to a larger marginalized community who needed more leaders like her in popular culture and media — affected generations. And eventually, the talent and charm that made America fall in love with Ellen in the first place came to be more important to the majority (and the “powers that be” in the entertainment business), who soon returned her to her rightful place on our television screens. “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” has earned 28 Daytime Emmys in its 14 years on air, and Ellen herself has been on the receiving end of numerous awards and honors, most recently accepting the Presidential Medal from Barack Obama, to whom she said farewell with a touching LGBTQ tribute she aired on her show.
Ellen DeGeneres is a leader, and we need more of those we can trust right now. Among a sea of TV hosts who invited Donald Trump on their show prior to the election, Ellen, a Hillary Clinton supporter, declined to banter with him on air despite the prospect of boosted ratings. After Trump secured the presidency, she shared a hopeful tweet, writing, “There is so much good in this world. My job is to find it and to show it to you. I’m not giving up on that.”
The kind of optimistic, laid-back, inclusive environment Ellen fosters on her show and extensions of it, and how she positively presents herself on social media and in public appearances, all lend to helping the LGBTQ community find some solace in an otherwise devastating time. Her personal journey over the last two decades alone illustrates how easily an entertainer can be pushed off the pedestal on which the public placed them, merely because of something that, in part, makes them who they are. But success proved imminent, and Ellen’s consistent message remains both simple and essential to harmoniously living together in a world of immense difference: “Be kind to one another.”
Ellen’s epic coming out process created a ripple effect for other LGBTQ public figures, many of whom credit her with paving the path for them to lead out and proud lives. Additionally, she offered mainstream America a shining example of a woman unashamed of her gay identity — and subsequently, she’s largely beloved for her openness. As Ellen found love with her now-wife, Portia de Rossi, and established herself as a happy, successful lesbian, she inspired innumerable others, gifting them a new kind of hope that really didn’t exist before the precedents she set. Everyone loves Ellen — and how can you hate a part of who you love?
In the last few years, Ellen has used her show as a platform to take on more political issues, interjecting commentary on anti-LGBT policies and bills affecting Americans. Additionally, she bucks anti-LGBTQ forces in more subtle ways by just living her life as an openly gay celebrity. She celebrates her wife, their anniversaries, their homes and their pets on her show, each time subverting the so-called “norm” and showing viewers (who are certainly not all LGBTQ-identified) how her she built her relationship with Portia on the same kind of love that heterosexual housewives and their husbands share. Ellen has somehow achieved the impossible — she’s made being in a relationship with another woman less about sex and more about love — not an easy task when right wing extremists, more than ever, rabidly focus on what they call the “deviance” of homosexuality, honing in mostly on what we do in the privacy of our own bedrooms.
“I don’t normally talk about politics because it’s divisive and it seems to be getting worse,” Ellen said during a monologue last August. “In the past month, I notice if I say the word ‘election’ in this room, it gets very, very tense. It’s the same kind of tension that Twitch and I have,” she joked about her male DJ. “But you know, you hear someone is a Republican or is a Democrat and you automatically assume certain things about that person without even knowing who they are or anything about them. And it’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s how stereotypes and labels are formed. It’s why people think just because I’m gay I’m on a softball team. I’m not. I missed sign-ups this year; I was bowling. But who you vote for does not define who you are as a person. I don’t want to hate someone for who they’re voting for and I don’t want someone to hate me for who I’m voting for…It just creates so much anger and so much outrage. I know I have Democrats in my audience, I have Republicans in my audience. If you’re an elephant or an ass, I don’t care. It would just be great if we could all just come from a place of non-judgement and try to focus on the things we have in common, because I think for the most part we all want the same things. We want to be treated fairly, we want to be respected, and ideally, we want to be as happy as the lady wearing the Chewbacca mask.”
This past weekend, Ellen tweeted and posted some of her favorite signs from the Women’s Marches, and interviewed Katie Couric about her new Nat Geo docu-series on trans and gender non-binary people. Ruby Rose, Tig Notaro and Wanda Sykes recently appeared on Ellen’s show — all women who talk about themselves and their modern families without shame, normalizing our existence in a way that changes hearts and minds. That’s what Ellen has been doing for 20 years—and what she’ll continue to do for the foreseeable future.
“I think I’m just very real, and people sense that,” Ellen told Parade. “They know everything about me. This is a platform that’s probably more powerful than politics, and I think if you have a loud voice, you should use it for good.”
Kindness is the antidote to evil. Fearlessness combats fearmongering. On Ellen’s 59th birthday, we celebrate everything she’s contributed to shaping our world, and humbly request that she keep up the good work.