News that Ellen DeGeneres won the Carol Burnett Award at Sunday night’s Golden Globes — only the second person to receive the honor following Burnett herself in 2019 — recognizes a national figure who has triumphed against an industry that has historically silenced and shut out people who are LGBTQ.
The news is poignantly symbolic of how far we’ve come in LGBTQ rights in the more than two decades since DeGeneres came out as a lesbian.
“She really risked her entire life and her entire career in order to tell the truth, and she suffered greatly for it,” said “Saturday Night Live’s” Kate McKinnon, who introduced DeGeneres at the awards.
And suffer she did.
Not long after DeGeneres came out publicly on her sitcom in 1997, the show was pulled off the air. She was essentially blacklisted, unable to find work.
It didn’t matter that DeGeneres had superstars like Oprah in her corner, or that she had been backed by a major network with major distribution. The message that her downfall sent to kids like me, who were just coming out as gay, was stark and devastating.
There was no safety net, no rank you could achieve to circumvent homophobia and discrimination. There was no level of fame one could reach to immunize against the hate that people would throw at you simply because of you who were and who you loved.
I realized I was a lesbian the very same year that Ellen’s show was canceled. While I had the good fortune of living in an urban oasis with diversity all around me, I didn’t know exactly what I was feeling or what was happening. I didn’t know anyone who was gay, and I was terrified.
I came out to a world that was hostile, one in which LGBTQ people were targeted and denigrated. It was a world — an America — where being gay meant you had a target on your back. Coming out meant you could be fired like DeGeneres — or like the many teachers, athletes, government employees, members of the military and others who lost their livelihoods simply for being themselves.
Coming out meant you were officially a disappointment to your parents — if you were lucky. I held off on telling my parents I was a lesbian for as long as I could, terrified that I would be left homeless. I told my parents I was at a friend’s house studying and sneaked off to hang out with the other queer kids, many of whom had been kicked out of their homes when they came out.
I was afraid of becoming a statistic.
I was lucky, though, and so was DeGeneres.
My parents kept on loving me, and DeGeneres got a second chance.
By 2003, DeGeneres launched a talk show that didn’t just become popular, it became the most popular. In a decidedly ironic twist of fate, her show was a soccer mom favorite, engaging the very same people who likely would have chased her with their torches and epithets less than half a decade earlier. She helped to normalize lesbian and queer identity at a time when being LGBTQ was becoming more accepted across the country and world.
In just those few years — from the late ’90s to mid-aughts — the landscape for our community and lesbians like me shifted dramatically. Nondiscrimination laws started to get passed at the state and local levels. Civil unions were implemented, and the conversation started to center on love and family,
At the Golden Globes last night, McKinnon said DeGeneres’s visibility as a lesbian gave her a “shot” at making it in the entertainment industry. She gave lesbians like me a chance, too. Lesbians who thought we’d never have a “normal” life, who had good reason to believe we’d always live in the margins and have to watch our backs, and who now proudly display our family pictures on our desks at work.
And now, the next generation of kids who are a whisper away from coming out can look to DeGeneres standing on a national stage, accepting an honor that is broadly recognized by all. They see someone who is being honored not just because of her professional achievements, but because of her dogma in pursuing her professional potential despite the forces that held her back.
That is the true mark of DeGeneres’s crowning achievement. Her success will live on in each of those young people who can take next steps with a boost of empowerment that kids like me could only dream about when we — and DeGeneres — first came out.