Today, Ellen DeGeneres represents a kind of hyper-palatable, vanilla gayness that’s more mainstream than subversive. When Barack Obama awarded her one of his last Presidential Medals of Freedom on Tuesday, he reminded viewers that two decades ago, when DeGeneres came out, even rumors of being gay could torpedo an actor’s livelihood.
“What an incredible burden that was to bear, to risk your career like that,” Obama said in his address. “People don’t do that very often. And then to have the hopes of millions on your shoulders.”
Ellen smiled and swallowed, clearly holding back tears, as Obama praised her courage and determination to change hearts and minds. “It’s easy to forget, now, when we’ve come so far … just how important it was, not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us, to see somebody so full of kindness and light—somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor, or our colleague, or our sister—challenge our own assumptions, remind us that we have more in common than we realize, push our country in the direction of justice.”
“She did pay a price,” Obama continued. “We don’t remember this; I hadn’t remembered it. She did, for a pretty long stretch of time, even in Hollywood. And yet, today, every day, in every way, Ellen counters what too often divides us with the countless things that bind us together. Inspires us to be better. One joke, one dance at a time.”
DeGeneres accepted the medal in a power-clash ensemble—a tartan blazer and a polka-dot shirt—that underscores one of the most powerful aspects of her role as our ambassador into middle-American households that may have never welcomed a queer person over the threshold in real life. As scarce as lesbians and queer women are in mainstream popular culture, masculine-of-center ones are the rarest subspecies. Lesbian characters in films and TV shows are almost always straight-passing femmes that appeal to straight male viewers; out queer celebrities usually get dolled up in lipstick and gowns like any of their straight counterparts on the red carpet.
DeGeneres, forever clad in a well-fitted suits and sweater vests, is an unmistakable androgyne, her every appearance a reminder that America’s friendliest talk-show host is a giant homo. “Ellen DeGeneres has showed us that a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open, more loving place, so long as we just keep swimming,” the ceremony announcer read as Obama fastened the medal around DeGeneres’ neck. For those of us who’ve reaped the benefits of DeGeneres’ feel-good gay diplomacy, she’s made the world a safer place, too.