Celebrity Lesbians Come Out

Marking a new first for the LGBT movement, country and pop singer k. d. lang became the first major female recording artist to come out as lesbian, followed by rock star Melissa Etheridge, comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, comedian and talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell, and others.

Summary of Event

In 1992, tennis star Martina Navratilova was the only out lesbian celebrity, and mainstream America was still grappling with the HIV-AIDS crisis, which exploded in the 1980’s and took the life of actor Rock Hudson in 1985. It was in a relatively conservative climate, at the end of the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, that k. d. lang became the first major celebrity to officially come out as lesbian. [kw]Celebrity Lesbians Come Out (1992-2002)
[kw]Lesbians Come Out, Celebrity (1992-2002)
[kw]Come Out, Celebrity Lesbians (1992-2002)
[kw]Out, Celebrity Lesbians Come (1992-2002)
Celebrities, and coming out
Media;and lesbian celebrities[lesbian celebrities]
Lesbian celebrities
Television;lesbian celebrities
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1992-2002: Celebrity Lesbians Come Out[2160]
[c]Arts;1992-2002: Celebrity Lesbians Come Out[2160]
lang, k. d.
Etheridge, Melissa
DeGeneres, Ellen
O’Donnell, Rosie

The infamous and provocative cover of the August, 1993, issue of Vanity Fair, with singer k. d. lang and former supermodel Cindy Crawford.

Although lang released several successful country music albums before 1992, including the Grammy Award-winning Absolute Torch and Twang (1989), her androgynous appearance—which had often been described by the mainstream media as “strange”—and her outspokenness on vegetarianism alienated much of the mostly conservative Nashville music industry. After struggling with the country music industry for several years, lang decided to take her career in a different direction in 1992 with the pop crossover album Ingénue. She accompanied this album with an interview in the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine The Advocate, Advocate, The;and k. d. lang[lang] in which she publicly confirmed that she was a lesbian.

Admitting that she had long hesitated to come out because she was concerned about the way her mother would react, lang’s decision was heralded by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as “a whole new era of possibility for celebrities.” Indeed, lang’s coming out was not followed by a negative backlash, and in 1993 she was on the cover of mainstream magazine Vanity Fair
Vanity Fair magazine, k. d. lang/Cindy Crawford cover
Media;Vanity Fair magazine
Publications;Vanity Fair magazine dressed in a man’s suit and sitting in a barber’s chair, with supermodel Cindy Crawford, in very feminine attire, appearing to give her a facial shave.

Lang’s continued success after coming out signaled the beginning of a period of more openness, as other lesbian celebrities also began to come out. At the 1993 Triangle Ball during the time of President Bill Clinton’s Clinton, Bill inauguration, rock star Melissa Etheridge announced that she too was lesbian. In comparison to lang, whose first major interview about being lesbian was with a GLBT publication, Etheridge was featured in People
People magazine, and Melissa Etheridge
Media;People magazine
Publications;People magazine magazine, reflecting her more mainstream, middle-America audience.

In an interview with The Advocate soon after coming out, Etheridge noted, “k. d. and myself, we came out after a certain amount of success.…I hope that by us doing that and other artists doing that, the teenagers growing up now who are bound for entertainment or whatever feel that they can actually come out and still not have any extra difficulty climbing to the top.” Despite the relatively positive support that Etheridge and lang received from the mainstream press and their fans, it was another four years before another celebrity would follow in their footsteps and come out too.

In the fall of 1996, rumors began circulating that the character of Ellen Morgan on the sitcom Ellen was going to come out as lesbian on the show, and that the actor playing the character—comedian Ellen DeGeneres—was also going to come out. The airing of the now-famous “Puppy Episode” in April, 1997, was followed by intense media hype, so DeGeneres’s coming-out had dwarfed the buzz that accompanied lang’s and Etheridge’s announcements. The episode included guest appearances from lang and Jenny Shimizu, as well as an appearance by LGBT-friendly Oprah Winfrey as Ellen’s psychologist.

The “Puppy Episode” was followed by DeGeneres on the cover of Time magazine Time magazine;Ellen DeGeneres cover issue[Degeneres] with the words “Yep, I’m Gay,” and the conservative Reverend Jerry Falwell famously deriding her as “Ellen DeGenerate.” Although ratings for the coming-out episode skyrocketed, the sitcom failed to maintain high ratings and was canceled after the following season. At the same time, Ellen’s much-publicized relationship with actor Anne Heche dominated the entertainment press, resulting in criticism that both DeGeneres and her sitcom were “too gay.” DeGeneres continued to work in the years following the cancellation of Ellen, but her next major project, another sitcom titled The Ellen Show, also failed. By the time her relationship with Heche ended in 2000, her career had experienced a notable decline.

During the late 1990’s, comedian and talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell was also rumored to be lesbian, and she even joked with DeGeneres about being “Lebanese” just before DeGeneres came out. However, O’Donnell did not announce she was lesbian until 2002, after her talk show had ended. In an interview with journalist Diane Sawyer for ABC TV’s Primetime Live, O’Donnell explained that she did not want to talk about her sexual orientation unless there was reason to, and she had found the reason in a child custody case from Florida involving two gay fathers who were denied the ability to adopt their foster son because they were gay. Well known for being an adoptive mother herself, O’Donnell wanted to show that gay and lesbian parents make good parents, and after coming out she became active in supporting the rights of GLBT parents.


While it is impossible to determine how celebrities coming out has affected the private lives of gays and lesbians—who have long been denied many positive, public role models—it is clear that mainstream media reaction has been mixed. Although lang and Etheridge did not suffer a significant backlash, they were also pop stars, who are often expected to be overtly sexual in a way that actors or comedians are not. In addition, lang and Etheridge have recorded music with lyrics not explicitly lesbian in theme, and have thus avoided “offending” some listeners.

DeGeneres and O’Donnell, television personalities known to mainstream audiences for being friendly and nonthreatening, did suffer a certain amount of backlash after they came out. O’Donnell faced criticism for months after coming out because she was involved in a court case involving the dissolution of her magazine, but she was also criticized for cutting her hair short and “looking like” a lesbian. DeGeneres made a successful comeback to television with a popular daytime talk show that debuted in September, 2003, and continued as an Emmy-Award winning program into 2006, but she was also criticized by the GLBT press for not being vocal enough about GLBT rights and issues. O’Donnell joined the popular morning talk show The View in 2006.

Despite these mixed results, less-known lesbian, gay, and bisexual actors, comedians, and singers have benefited from the actions of lang, Etheridge, DeGeneres, and O’Donnell. While many actors remain closeted, and because there still is a taboo against gay male actors (especially if they are out), after 2000, several younger female actors have made no secret that they are lesbian or bisexual or, even, “questioning,” and have suffered few if any repercussions. Celebrities, and coming out
Media;and lesbian celebrities[lesbian celebrities]
Lesbian celebrities
Television;lesbian celebrities

Further Reading

  • Allen, Louise. The Lesbian Idol: Martina, k. d., and the Consumption of Lesbian Masculinity. London: Cassell, 1997.
  • Bennetts, Leslie. “k. d. lang Cuts It Close.” Vanity Fair, August, 1993, 94-99, 142-146.
  • Capsuto, Steven. Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television, 1930’s to the Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.
  • Handy, Bruce. “Yep, I’m Gay.” Time, April 14, 1997, 80-86.
  • Keller, James R., and Leslie Stratyner, eds. The New Queer Aesthetic on Television: Essays on Recent Programming. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006.
  • Lemon, Brendan. “k. d.: A Quiet Life.” The Advocate, June 16, 1992, 34-46.
  • Tropiano, Stephen. The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2002.
  • Walters, Barry. “Melissa Etheridge: Rocking the Boat.” The Advocate, September 21, 1993.

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1985: GLAAD Begins Monitoring Media Coverage of Gays and Lesbians

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