Ellen DeGeneres turns 50 today. Besides being an important personal milestone, the date signifies a cultural milestone as well. You see Ellen – a 50-year-old out lesbian – is the most popular person on television right now. More popular even than the almighty Oprah. That may not sound like such a big deal upfront but, if you let it sink in for a moment, you’ll realize that it is a huge freaking deal. A gay woman is America’s TV darling. Wow. I mean really, wow. It’s been almost 11 years since Ellen’s three little words rearranged our pop culture landscape. Through the simple act of being herself – not to mention the world’s most famous “Yep” – she helped change the world.
It’s often been said, and rightfully so, that the key to overcoming homophobia is for people to meet someone who is gay. Fear lives in the unknown. Bigotry breeds on dehumanization. So to know a gay person, even if just through the flickering tubes of a television, makes it that much harder to hate us. Ellen’s decision to come out while her sitcom was still on air was a risk, one she paid for bitterly in the end. But then, when she could have lived out her days as a pioneer and let others do more groundbreaking, she came back. She came back because she knew she had more to share with us. And I’m not just talking about her dance moves.
While some might argue that Ellen doesn’t talk about her sexuality enough, I think she has done more than enough to both promote visibility and champion our cause. You see, being an activist is about more than just carrying signs and making speeches and marching in rallies. It’s about more than bluster and brouhaha. Not that I don’t love me some brouhaha. But activism is also about honesty and openness. And, in this America , being on TV every single day as a gay woman is a powerful form of activism. Even if the word “gay’ isn’t uttered once. They see her and they see a woman who is smart and friendly and funny as hell. And they like that. And she likes them. And that, my friends, is how minds are changed. Now, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to say that they don’t know any gay people. Because of course they do, they know Ellen -- America’s Lesbian Next Door. Happy birthday, Ellen! Happy weekend, all.