In 2008, during the brief window when it was legal for same-sex couples to get married in California, perhaps no couple drew more attention than Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi.
After their wedding, photos of the couple were everywhere; DeGeneres, beaming, in a white suit and holding hands with de Rossi, the very picture of the princess bride so many young girls dream of being one day. It was a cultural touchstone, and Dietram Scheufele, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin, says it was neither the first nor the last time DeGeneres has played that role.
"Ellen DeGeneres is ... almost a litmus test of where we have been as a society," Scheufele says. "When she first came out and really put the issue of same-sex partnerships on people's agendas, and I mean people who really wouldn't have thought about it, I think the country was still in a very different state."
A Quiet Debut
The country was certainly in a very different state when DeGeneres made her TV debut on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1986. DeGeneres was not about to break any barriers. Her personality was warm, nonthreatening, and her comedy was safe.
That same year, the Supreme Court had ruled that states' anti-sodomy laws were constitutional. The AIDS epidemic was at its height, and while there was already a burgeoning gay-rights movement, a lot of homosexuals were not ready to come out of the closet.
Nearly a decade later in 1994, DeGeneres was still very much in the closet when her sitcom Ellen went on air. She had a gawky, tomboyish persona, but her fans seemed to have no trouble seeing her as young, single woman who just happened to be unlucky in love.
DeGeneres' desire to stay in the closet made sense, says Scheufele.
"I think that we as a society had been in this mode for so long that, if you're in Hollywood [and] if you have any success in entertainment, you fit to the gender stereotypes," he says. "I think that is something that at the time was just not questioned."
A Public Coming Out
In 1996, the same year the Defense of Marriage Act became law, DeGeneres was so deep in the closet that she made a movie called Mr. Wrong, playing a lonely young woman who feels so pressured to get married she ends up dating a guy who turns out to be crazy.
One year later, DeGeneres decided to come out on her sitcom. She was condemned by the religious right, sponsors pulled their advertising from the show and DeGeneres ended up on the cover of Time magazine.
"What's wonderful about her, as a cultural figure, is that it worked so wonderfully alongside political activism," says Jessica Halem, a comedian and gay-rights activist. "So there's political activism and cultural change going on at the same time."
Halem says it is no accident that it was a comedian who took the conversation about homosexuality to a new level.
"That's their role, to be the jester [or] the fool who says, 'Let me talk about things you might not be talking about yourself and let me invite you into that conversation,'" she says.
On the sitcom, Ellen finally, awkwardly, came out of the closet in an airport waiting room. As she struggles to admit she is gay to a woman she is attracted to, she accidentally leans over an open mike and announces it to the whole waiting room. The studio audience roars with laughter and applause.
"That scene is just so beautiful, because there's nothing like telling someone you're gay and then it goes silent," Halem says. "But for her to say, 'I'm gay' and it's a laugh line, and you know it lets us laugh, it lets us release some of the anxiety."
Perhaps the biggest cultural shock that resulted from this very famous and public coming out was that it did not ruin DeGeneres' career. Ellen didn't last too much longer, nor did her follow-up sitcom, The Ellen Show, but DeGeneres' career took off and mainstream America followed.
Now, she has her own daytime talk show, has hosted the Emmy Awards and the Oscars, has been a judge on American Idol, and is even a spokeswoman for companies like J.C. Penney and CoverGirl.
"Who thought we would ever have a lesbian selling makeup?" says Halem, saying she is still amazed by how widely accepted DeGeneres is by the American public.
"It blows me away when I turn on her show and I see her in a vest and tie, dancing with housewives from Ohio, and she loves them and they love her. It's wonderful," Halem says.
But even DeGeneres can't win over everyone with her charm. Last year, there was an organized protest against J.C. Penney for using DeGeneres as a spokeswoman. In another sign of how much things have changed, the company stood by her — the same company that pulled its advertising from the Ellen show when DeGeneres came out 15 years ago.
Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.