YEOJA Mag - Ellen Degeneres - Written by Rae Tilly, Illustration by Kiki Saito

Ellen Degeneres

Queer Icon of the Month

It’s basically impossible to have a series celebrating queer icons without including Ellen Degeneres. After all, Ellen has one of the most infamous coming out stories ever and is the first openly lesbian actress to also play an openly gay lead character on television. She has also lent her voice to the most loveable little blue fish in animated history.

Although her stand-up career began in the early 1980s, this 60-year-old comedian became a household name when she starred in the television sitcom Ellen, which aired from 1994 to 1998. She became cemented into history when she appeared on the cover of TIME, along with the words: “Yep, I’m Gay” printed in bold lettering in on April 14th, 1997. Two weeks later, Ellen came out as gay on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was followed hours later by her eponymous character coming out as gay in the 22nd episode of season 4, “The Puppy Episode.” The episode was watched by an estimated 44 million people.

While gay characters had been portrayed by actors before, they were often tragic characters a la Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. Ellen’s character was strong and funny – to boot. After “The Puppy Episode,” Ellen’s character and the show in general went on to explore LGBT issues, including the coming out process. However, the series – which had become primarily focused on exploring gay issues – faced advertising boycotts and protests. Some members of the LGBT community, including Chaz Bono (then media director of GLAAD), also found fault with the serious turn the show had taken.

The show was taken off the air in May 1998 after five seasons and Ellen’s career suffered. But Ellen had effectively “chang[ed] pop culture forever” by creating massive visibility for the LGBT community and subsequently issuing a growing number of gay characters into pop culture; from Will & Grace (1998-2006), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Queer as Folk (1999-2000 and 2000-2005) and Six Feet Under (2001-2005), to the more recent True Blood (2008-2014), Glee (2009-2015), Modern Family (2009-present), and Orange is the New Black (2013-present).

YEOJA Mag - Ellen Degeneres - Written by Rae Tilly, Illustration by Kiki Saito
Illustration: Kiki Saito

Ellen herself burst back onto the scene in 2003 with The Ellen DeGeneres Show, a comedy talk show, blowing other celebrity-hosted talk shows (think Sharon Osbourne, Tony Danza, and Kathy Griffin) both then and now out of the water. The success that Ellen has found is hardly a surprise, as it’s hard not to love a woman who is so effortlessly funny and from many reports, genuinely kind. The show, which consists of 14 seasons (and counting) and features human-interest stories, musical guests, celebrities, and comedy, has also won 59 Daytime Emmy Awards as of 2017.

Ellen has more than just her successful career to keep her going. She is also happily married to mega babe Portia de Rossi, has received the Medal of Freedom from then-president Barack Obama, and is friends with the likes of Oprah and Michelle Obama. Now if that isn’t a fuck you to all of the homophobic hurdles Ellen has had to face in her career and personal life, we’re not sure what is.

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Original artwork created by Kiki Saito for YEOJA Mag. For more LGBT+ articles, click here. For more Queer Icon of the Month, click here.