It's easy to forget, now in 2016, that coming out nearly destroyed Ellen DeGeneres' career.
Comedian DeGeneres has just been awarded the highest civilian honour in the US – the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was presented the honour by outgoing President Barack Obama. Obama chose the honourees himself, citing that every recipient "has touched me in a very powerful, personal way, in ways that they probably couldn't imagine." DeGeneres was chosen due to her work promoting LGBT+ equality and acceptance, as well as providing visibility to the community. It is worth noting that so much has happened since Ellen came out of the closet. It is easy to view her current level of success and fame, particularly her talk show and notoriety as the voice of 'Dory' (in the films 'Finding Nemo' and 'Finding Dory'), which many people, especially the younger generations, have only ever known her as, and not take into consideration all that has happened before it. Some of us do remember, however, her first shot at fame- as a comedian in the 80s and 90s. It should be noted that back in 1997, after she publicly outed herself on her self-titled sitcom "Ellen", the news did not go down so well with middle America. Lest we forget that ABC, the channel which aired the sitcom, placed a parental advisory notice before each episode after her 'coming out episode', just in case – heaven forbid! – children should be watching a programme that happened to feature a lesbian...
Remarkably, DeGeneres turned this all around. After her sitcom was cancelled in May 1998, only a year after she came out on and off the show, due to falling ratings (no doubt due to the new nature of the show… - even the LGBT+ community considered the sitcom to be "too gay") she was not seen or heard of for a few years. But fast forward 18 years and she is one of the best-loved entertainers in the world, particularly in the US, and her sexuality is somewhat considered secondary to her successful career as a talk show host of a primetime show, her voiceover work as a beloved Disney Pixar character, her stand up career and work as host of the Oscars. She is an outspoken advocate for the LGBT+ community and provides a positive role model for the youth of today – whether LGBT+ themselves, or an ally. Obama himself pointed out that DeGeneres helped to "push our country in the direction of justice". She is a proud member of the community and her marriage in 2008 to actor Portia de Rossi helped cement her position in the celebrity sphere.
DeGeneres' work for charity includes giving away substantial amounts of money on her show. The People's Choice award honoured her with the title "Favourite Humanitarian" after she gave away around $50 million herself and inspiring her audience to donate a further $35 million to charitable causes! These include breast cancer research and aiding the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Quite often the recipients of her generosity have featured as guests on her show – they were duly given cheques of substantial amounts after sharing their tales of hardship. It's fair to say she is a generous soul.
Without wanting to dismiss or undermine all the many charitable things DeGeneres has done (and continues to do), what I find significant is her visibility within mainstream society. Whilst it's true her sexuality is often remarked upon, and not completely ignored, particularly by the tabloid press, it is generally considered irrelevant to her success and to her career at large. She is a prominent member of the LGBT+ community. She is a successful woman. She is talented, smart and funny. She just happens to be a lesbian. My hope for future generations is that this last statement becomes completely irrelevant to a person's story and that success and happiness will be all that matters.