Lily Tomlin will be one of five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors this year, the first out lesbian to be chosen.
The Kennedy Center Honors recognize living artists for lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts. They have been given annually by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., since 1978.
While several women previously honored have been rumored to be lesbian or bisexual, such as Lynn Fontanne and Katharine Hepburn, Tomlin is the first out female honoree. Numerous gay or bisexual men have received the Kennedy Center Honors, including Tennessee Williams, Stephen Sondheim, Aaron Copland, Edward Albee, Elton John, and Merce Cunningham.
Tomlin and another out lesbian performer, Ellen DeGeneres, have both received a different Kennedy Center award, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Tomlin in 2003, DeGeneres in 2012.
“From the days of her early television and theatrical appearances, Lily Tomlin has made us laugh and continues to amaze us with her acting talent and quick wit,” Kennedy Center chairman David M. Rubenstein said in a press release announcing the honorees.
Tomlin rose to fame in the early 1970s on the innovative comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where she showcased signature characters such as Ernestine and Edith Ann. She has since made extensive stage and film appearances, winning Tony Awards for her one-woman Broadway shows Appearing Nitely and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, both written by Jane Wagner, now Tomlin’s wife, who also received a Tony for The Search. Her film credits include Nashville, Nine to Five, All of Me, Flirting With Disaster, and I Heart Huckabees, and she has appeared on TV shows such as Will & Grace, The X-Files, The West Wing, Murphy Brown, Desperate Housewives, and Web Therapy.
She was involved with two adaptations of esteemed books dealing LGBT issues: She acted in the TV film And the Band Played On, based on Randy Shilts’s chronicle of the early days of AIDS, and narrated and executive-produced the documentary The Celluloid Closet, adapted from Vito Russo’s book about LGBT representation in movies.
Tomlin is reuniting with Nine to Five costar Jane Fonda for the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, currently in production, in which they play women whose husbands fall in love with each other, and she maintains a busy schedule of stage appearances. Read a recent interview with her here.
The rest of this year’s honorees are singer Al Green, actor Tom Hanks, ballerina Patricia McBride, and singer-songwriter Sting. The recipients will receive their medallions at a state dinner December 6 and then will be honored with a star-studded gala the following night. The gala will be recorded for broadcast on CBS December 30 at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific.