Ellen Degeneres (1958-)
It would be impossible for me to express accurately the impact Ellen Degeneres has had on me as a person. I wonder if she gets tired of hearing how important she has been to people. I was a senior in high school in 1997. The previous Summer had been the time when I finally accepted for myself that I was gay, although I had known since kindergarten. I was in the midst of coming to terms, but it was in a world that made clear that being a gay person was not okay. Gays portrayed in popular culture were relegated to AIDS patients or to the periphery where their lives were lived apart from “normal” people. Often they were more glamorous and more successful than other people. RuPaul, I’m looking at you. They were not, however, the main part of the story
Enter Ellen. She had been teasing her coming out for months, so everyone knew about it and was anticipating it for a while. It was the topic of conversation everywhere. For me, I had been dealing with being gay quietly. I had visions of living my life in the shadows, which I had accepted as my fate, but Ellen was being so open about it. It was a little uncomfortable. She seemed to be sticking her toe in the water, testing it. And it was going well for her. Meanwhile, so many of us were watching her to see if it was okay. On March 17, 1997 I decided it was time to tell someone. My own coming out conversations were scary for me, and ultimately much darker than they would need to be. It felt like everything in my lie would be altered. At least there was someone for me to look to, someone to remind me that achieving my dreams would still be possible.
Ellen has said that she didn’t set out to become an icon, that she didn’t intend to have people look up to her. She was simply living her truth and letting the world see who she was fully. I think that attitude about the whole thing had just as much of an impact to me as her coming out did. Folks glomming on to her as a symbol of what they could be had to be something that factored in to her decision, but she didn’t let that define the moment. Everyone should be living their own truth’s. That doesn’t mean everyone has to know that someone is gay. It’s that person’s choice. What Ellen did was give us a choice.
You would think that Ellen had given the world her best by coming out. It was historic, it was brave, and it was door-opening. She wasn’t ready to settle into the shadows. She has now been inviting America to have a little fun everyday on her talk show. It’s a genius premise, and so needed at times. Even more, it has invited America to see LGBT celebrities as normal people, as neighbors. She did it all by having a good time. That will be her real legacy. She put such a great amount of positivity into the world.