Lesbian of the Decade: Ellen DeGeneres


You probably know by now that our brothers at AfterElton.com have been holding a Gay/Bi Man of the Decade contest. It started out as a reader poll that exploded onto Twitter when John Barrowman and Neil Patrick Harris asked their followers to vote for them. The competition snagged its own hash tag (#biggaybattle), drew in celebrity Tweeters from around the globe, and reached its climax (so to speak) when Neil Patrick Harris visited Jimmy Kimmel Live! to talk about his victory.

Many people have asked why we didn’t hold our own contest at AfterEllen.com, and the simple answer is that while many noteworthy and newsworthy lesbians have impacted queer visibility over the last 10 years, there is really only one woman who deserves the title "Lesbian of the Decade." And that woman is Ellen DeGeneres.

Clockwise from top left: 2009 People’s Choice Awards, 1997 Primetime Emmys, 2008 Teen Choice Awards, 2008 Daytime Emmys

The landscape of Ellen’s life in 2010 is remarkable. She has won 11 People’s Choice Awards and 12 Emmys. She has received critical acclaim for her hosting gigs on the most prestigious awards shows. She has become a bankable spokesperson, scoring international TV and print ads for American Express and Cover Girl.

In 2008, she married Portia de Rossi in a widely exalted ceremony, and the couple continues to rank high among favorite celebrity pairings. This year she will join the judging panel of American Idol, the most popular show on television. And every day, millions of people invite her into their living rooms as she dances with and interviews celebrities on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

But ten years ago, no one could have predicted that Ellen would ring in the decade from a daytime TV throne at the right hand of Oprah.

In April 1997, Ellen came out on the cover of Time Magazine. Following the public declaration of her own sexuality, Ellen’s character came out on her sitcom. The controversy and commendation surrounding the parallel stories propelled Ellen to ratings success — but only for a while.

Even though it won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing, Ellen couldn’t maintain the momentum and it was canceled. Entertainment Weekly followed up Time‘s cover story with one of their own, featuring Ellen and the phrase "Yep, She’s Too Gay."

After the sitcom’s cancellation, Ellen couldn’t find a job. In an interview with Oprah last year, Ellen said that she went through a three-year period of depression because she was running out of money, and networks wouldn’t take a chance on her with a talk show. They didn’t believe a lesbian could connect with a housewife.

It was during this time, in 2002, when Sarah Warn founded AfterEllen.com, naming the site after DeGeneres’ sitcom so that gay women would remember the sacrifices Ellen made when she came out. No one anticipated a career resurgence. Not even us.

Then along came Nemo.

In 2003, Ellen became the voice of Dory, the always-forgetful, ever-lovable companion of Marlin the Clownfish in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. In the climactic scene of the coming-of-age tale, Dory remembered "42 Wallaby Way, Sydney! 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney!" And suddenly the critics remembered Ellen DeGeneres.

The same year, Ellen finally scored her own talk show.

And that brings us back to 2010, the land of acclaim, magazine covers, trophies and matrimony.

Ellen DeGeneres is, without question, the most famous lesbian in the world. Every year GLAAD’s research tells us one thing: Visibility Matters. The game-changer for LGBT equality is when people know someone who’s gay. And people don’t just know Ellen; they love Ellen.

It’s something that occasionally surprises even her. Last year she told Oprah:

I’m all for really being who you are … [but] I mean, being a comedian and trying to make people laugh and wanting people to like you and having that secret inside of "they’re not going to laugh at me, they’re not going to like me no matter how good of a person I am, if they found out I’m gay." That’s a lot to carry around.

You know what else is a lot to carry around? An entire minority community. But Ellen has been carrying us for the last decade. At the very least, she’s been paving our way — and paving the way for other lesbian celebrities to live as openly gay women.

Every time a celebrity leaves the closet, she opens the door a little wider, making it easier for the women who will come after her. For that, we honor all of the women who came out in the last decade. But they, like us, came after Ellen.

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