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40 heroes

40 heroes


We have a winner...and it's Ellen! Thousands of you ranked your top 40 favorites for our first Greatest Gay Heroes list. Controversial? Outrageous? Fascinating? All of the above.

Ellen DeGeneres

Yep, she's your #1 hero. Ten years after she outed herself -- and her sitcom character -- Ellen DeGeneres is on top of the world. She's happily partnered. She's wealthy. She's hosted the Oscars. And five days a week, she shows millions of straight TV fans that being gay is no big deal. What other LGBT figure of the past 40 years has made a more spectacular mark on the world?

But that certainly isn't the only reason Advocate readers voted her our biggest hero of the past 40 years. DeGeneres also exemplifies the classic hero's journey of mythology -- a call to adventure, followed by a road of trials, and then a triumphant return to ordinary life. We love tales of people who take big risks, go through hard times, then brush themselves off and emerge better and brighter than ever. And that's Ellen for you.

In 1997, at age 39, she just couldn't breathe in the closet anymore, so she took a big gulp of fresh air and acknowledged what everyone already suspected: She likes girls. Television stars just didn't admit such things then. As newly out T.R. Knight said when he was a guest on Ellen's show a decade later, "It just made all the difference.... It meant so much." She was a pioneer, and pioneers make things a little less scary for everyone following in their paths.

Ellen's own path turned rocky after the brilliant "Puppy Episode," in which her TV character Ellen Morgan came out. Before long Ellen was canceled, her relationship with mercurial Anne Heche ended in a blaze of weirdness, and her next sitcom, The Ellen Show, flopped. Ellen herself tells The Advocate that she went through a period of being "upset and torn and bitter," feeling that she'd "lost everything."

But like the mythical phoenix, she rose from the ashes. She earned kudos for tastefully hosting the Emmy Awards right after 9/11. Then a little movie called Finding Nemo reminded the world how gifted she really is. In 2003, when DeGeneres launched her talkfest--officially titled The Ellen DeGeneres Show but, like every other show she's been involved with, known simply as Ellen -- an essential truth emerged: People didn't want Ellen to be somebody else. They loved her. Nine Emmys later, they still do.

Some of us might complain that Ellen doesn't play up gayness more on her talk show, but maybe we're just impossible to please. After all, some of us complained that Ellen became too gay. Fact is, the Ellen of 2007 doesn't hide who she is: She's very open about her relationship with Portia de Rossi, she still dresses in dyke-next-door chic, and she represents for the community. "I think I represent honesty," Ellen says, "and I'm proud to represent that."

Ellen took the risk; Ellen took the heat. And now her daily unapologetic presence as a lesbian on TV normalizes gayness for Middle America -- a huge feat.

"I'm sure there were those who weren't so famous who did a lot of great work," she says of the gay heroes of the past 40 years. "So I really am touched. It's a huge compliment." -- Michele Kort

Barney Frank

Barney Frank has spent more than 25 years in Congress, and he shows no signs of slowing down. After coming out publicly in 1987, Frank has been reelected by the fourth district of Massachusetts in every term since. "I think by being honest about who we are -- coming out to friends, relatives, teammates, customers, students, teachers--we have helped America understand a major fact: Most Americans were not homophobic but thought they were supposed to be," he explained to The Advocate in 2004.

Frank is at the forefront of gay issues in the House of Representatives (he consistently receives a perfect 100 score from the Human Rights Campaign), where he continues to advance the position of LGBT people everywhere. "By now we not only have millions of openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, we also have tens of millions of relatives and friends of gay people," he said during an interview in 2000. "When someone comes out to his or her parents, the parents may not in every case be ready to become a gay rights supporter. But they sure as hell don't want some politician calling their kid an asshole."

Harvey Milk

Though an assassin cut his life short, Harvey Milk packed 48 years with enough accomplishments to last many lifetimes. Born in Woodmere, N.Y., in 1930, Milk joined the Navy during the Korean War, worked on Wall Street during the 1960s, and eventually became involved with two iconic Broadway shows: Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. He settled in San Francisco permanently in 1972. And Milk's potent combination of charm and grassroots activism won him the nickname "the Mayor of Castro Street."

After two failed attempts, Milk was elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors in 1977, making him the first openly gay man to win public office in a major U.S. city. But Milk served only 11 months in office before vengeful former supervisor Dan White gunned down him and Mayor George Moscone.

"There was a bullet hole through Harvey," Dianne Feinstein told The Advocate in 1998, describing her discovery of the scene. "I put my finger on his wrist to try to get a pulse. I knew he was dead. It was a terrible, terrible moment." Though today, his story continues to touch people worldwide. Says Feinstein: "His homosexuality gave him an insight into the scars which all oppressed people wear. He believed that no sacrifice was too great a price to pay for the cause of human rights."

Matthew Shepard

What was it about Matthew Shepard's 1998 slaying that galvanized an entire nation? Even Shepard's mother, Judy, couldn't put her finger on it when she spoke to us the following year. "There have been so many other people who have been attacked and killed, and for some reason, this time everything came together and took everybody's attention," she said. "He was just a kid who liked everything. He wasn't different from anybody. And I think it was just so easily identifiable for everyone, gays and straights alike."

Perhaps that's why, after Shepard was savagely beaten and left to die in a remote spot outside Laramie, Wyo., he became a cultural touchstone in the long battle for gay equality. The death of this unassuming college student made the cover of Time magazine and the front page of The New York Times, inspired countless artistic responses (including the acclaimed play The Laramie Project), and renewed attention on national hate-crime laws. Speaking at the trial of his son's killers, Shepard's father, Dennis, acknowledged that impact: "My son Matthew paid a terrible price to open the eyes of all of us who live in Wyoming, the United States, and the world to the unjust and unnecessary fears, discrimination, and intolerance that members of the gay community face every day."

Melissa Etheridge

"I'm sort of a gay success story, a very inspirational one," Melissa Etheridge said in 1996, shortly after being named The Advocate's 1995 Person of the Year. "What happened to me is exactly the opposite of what closeted people fear: They think they'll lose everything if they come out. This did not happen to me at all. In fact, everything came back tenfold."

Tenfold might be conservative when you consider that this Grammy-winning rocker famously came out as a lesbian during President Bill Clinton's inaugural ball, then went on to see two subsequent albums (Yes I Am and Your Little Secret) hit multiplatinum highs. And when then-partner Julie Cypher gave birth to two children in the late 1990s, Etheridge became perhaps the world's most visible lesbian parent, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone with her extended family.

Even through tough times, Etheridge has proved an inspiration. After struggling with breast cancer in 2004, Etheridge showed up bald from chemotherapy at the Grammy Awards and belted out a defiant rendition of "Piece of My Heart." And though Cypher and Etheridge eventually split, the singer went on to exchange vows with actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, who added twins to their famous family last year. She may have started as our little secret; now she's anything but.

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