In February 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Two months later, her character Ellen Morgan also came out in the infamous “The Puppy Episode” episode of her sitcom. Ellen then appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the memorable headline, “Yep, I’m Gay.”
She didn’t just inch out of the closet, she blew the doors off and led the pride parade that tumbled out. And yet, it wasn’t an easy choice to come out. Ellen explained her fears in an episode of Oprah’s Master Class in October 2015:
“Would I still be famous, would they still love me if they knew I was gay? And my fear was that no, no they wouldn’t, and then it made me feel ashamed that I was hiding something. It made me feel ashamed that I couldn’t feel honest and really be who I am, and I just didn’t want to pretend to be somebody else anymore so that people would like me.”
These same concerns persist for many female celebrities years later, even in 2018. Ellen’s success, however (if we use income alone as a proxy, she hasn’t made under $45 million a year since 2008 and is valued at $345 million, plus she’s won 35 daytime Emmy Awards for her talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show since its debut in 2003), is proof that coming out isn’t the guaranteed career killer that it might have been before the early 1990s. Moreover, some female celebrities may have even benefited professionally to some degree—on top of the personal benefit—from coming out.
So, to help any female celebrities considering coming out, we’ve compiled a list of ways to publicly come out, based on successful women who have blazed the trails.
At what seems like the peak of your popularity, go on the cover of the most widely read and influential magazine that you can and announce to the world you’re gay. Bonus points if it comes with a pithy catchy phrase that people will remember and repeat even decades later. After coming out, go on a circuit of interviews talking about coming out and then become a major icon in the gay community. (See also The Ellen Page as a variation.)
The Jodie Foster
Develop your robust family life in private, as secluded as possible from the paparazzi, then eventually come out in a deeply uncomfortable, raw coming out speech while winning a major industry award like a lifetime achievement award. Return to carrying out your private life with little fanfare because your sexual orientation is nobody’s darn business.
The Lily Tomlin
You’ve always been quietly out in your personal life, but since the media avoided discussing your sexuality and didn’t “out” you, the general public doesn’t know. When you finally “come out” publicly, do it by casually mentioning something indicating your lesbianism in an interview and then let the media run with the story. Continue on with life as it was, only now with a little more media interest in your significant other. (See also: The Holland Taylor.)
The Wanda Sykes
During a pivotal moment in the gay rights movement, announce that you’re gay in a public setting, subconsciously or consciously using your celebrity to help bring publicity to the cause. Become a spokeswoman for intersectionality, raising awareness about the overlap and interdependence of discrimination as it touches on social categorizations like sex, race and sexual orientation in a language that’s easily understandable. (See also The Amandla Stenberg as a variation.)
The Rosie O’Donnell
Spend years publicly, theatrically mooning over a male celebrity—preferably one of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive—as a convenient smokescreen for your sexual orientation, then come out after a major life change such as adopting a child with your partner. Immediately become deeply involved in the gay rights movement and let the haters hate. (The Robin Roberts variation: after you undergo a life-threatening medical emergency, come out as a way of publicly acknowledging and thanking your partner.)
Like Ingrid Nilsen, Raven-Symoné or Mara Wilson, use a social media site like YouTube or Twitter to announce to your followers/fans that you’re gay, often as part of raising awareness for LGBT issues. Or talk about loving “the person, not the gender” in interviews to avoid the cognitive dissonance of flat out lying about being straight and as a way of dipping your toe in the water. When you eventually come out, you’ve already laid some groundwork among the public so there’s less surprise.
Coming out can be scary, for celebrities and non-celebrities alike, especially when an individual fears that coming out will have a significant negative impact on her career because of overt or covert discrimination. However, for any celebrity considering it, there are plenty of successful examples that show that coming out can have a limited career effect or even a positive effect—for example, the women listed above.
So to such a celebrity, we say, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”