The moment Ellen Morgan (played by Ellen DeGeneres) announced “I’m gay,” I wanted to blurt it out myself. Right there in the living room. Gleeful as ever. In seconds, the whole scenario ran marathons through my mind: I’ll just yell it. “I’m gay! Me too. Mom, I’m ga-a-ay!” But just like that I thought, I don’t want to take this moment away from Ellen. Of course I couldn’t, but ABC, the network airing Ellen, did. After Ellen’s coming-out episode, I remember every subsequent episode having an adult content disclaimer at the beginning, as if to say, “CAUTION! Lesbian at work.”
Of course now we’ve seen that “lesbian at work” work her way to a Peabody Award, two Primetime Emmys, a GLAAD Media Award, and a daytime talk show in its 14th season with its own accolades as well. But not every gay or bi woman in popular culture had quite the same reception when their closet door came unhinged. Here’s a look at a few notables you may have missed.
You know that island in Greece called Lesbos? The word “lesbian” is derived from the island thanks to Sappho. Centuries ago, the island was home to Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 B.C.E.), who gave us some of the first poems on written record of love between women. Only fragments of the poems survive, a harsh irony considering most of them were about unrequited love.
The Harlem Renaissance would not have been complete without Gladys Bentley. Gladys’s signature look was a tuxedo, with a top hat over her slicked-back hair. Notice I didn’t say “a man’s tuxedo,” no, no. Gladys made that look very much her own. Gladys owned her sexuality and openly flirted with women in her audiences. She was not afraid to push gender norms and confront boundaries of sexuality, even during a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness.
Though she married a man, this Mother of Blues and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee made it very clear that she had her eyes set on the ladies. She was one of the first women to make a blues record, and her work includes one of the first lesbian-themed love songs in recorded history. She boldly teases listeners by calling on them to prove the gay rumors are true in “Prove It on Me Blues”:
I went out last night, had a great big fight Everything seemed to go wrong When I looked up, to my surprise The gal I was with was gone
Folks say I'm crooked I don't know where she took it I want the whole world to know
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men It's true I wear a collar and a tie, I like to watch the women as they pass by
They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me They sure gotta prove it on me
If you were like me and stuck in the closet, too ashamed to admit you were dying to go to Lilith Fair, fret not: Ani DiFranco is still touring and recording new songs on her Righteous Babe record label. The feminist icon has recorded over 20 albums, earning her recognition as of one of folk and rock’s most outspoken singer-songwriters. Her music has been described as “thoughtful,” “honest,” “provocative,” and “timeless.” She’s spoken out against George W. Bush and his handling of the Katrina disaster, and in support of Barack Obama, LGBT rights, and progressive causes. She's now part of the resistance to Donald Trump and by all accounts remains a true believer in our favorite message: love. She's also working on a memoir.
Melissa Etheridge came out just four years before Ellen, and she admitted later just how scared she was to do so. “You think there’s some big black hole you’re going to fall into,” she told The Advocate in 1994, “and that all of a sudden people who have loved you all of your life aren’t going to love you anymore.” These are fears many of us can certainly relate to. But she had something to add: “I’m here to tell you that that does not happen.” Much like Ellen, Melissa highlights the bravery it takes to stand up and love boldly and unabashedly, as you see fit. She also hasn't done too bad for herself, winning Grammys, as well as an Oscar.
Actress and comedian Sandra Bernhard says she never really came out — she’s been bisexual since she can remember and never had what she calls a “revelatory moment.” “It's not like my sexuality was some deep, dark secret and I was a freak,” she told The Guardian in 2009. “I liked laughing at it. I still do.” That sense of humor and comfort in her own skin led her to a close friendship with Madonna during her sexually incendiary Erotica/Sex period and a recurring role as Nancy Bartlett on the '90s sitcom Roseanne, solidifying her as an outspoken voice for the LGBT community. As Nancy, Bernhard was one of the first actresses on American prime-time TV to explore the misunderstandings and unfair judgments lesbians experience.
Some people flock to labels to form their identity around a given group, but Audre Lorde defied labels. We could call her a poet, a feminist, an activist, a lesbian, or a first-generation West Indian-American, but that would be too limiting. Audre’s most notable work has been described as her “biomythography,” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. In it, Lorde uses her brilliant storytelling and poise with the written word on the layered identity she ascribes for herself. The legacy she leaves behind is not sullied by a narrow list of careers alongside her race and sexuality. She is very much her own creation — someone we can all learn from, gay and straight alike.
Today she's an award-winning singer-songwriter and an advocate for LGBT rights, but in 1992, around the release of her Grammy-nominated album Ingénue, k.d. lang came out publicly in The Advocate, admitting that LGBT rights wasn’t really her “passion.” She said, “I have never denied [being gay]. I don’t try to hide it like some people in the industry do.” The singer-songwriter’s most recent work is on the self-titled case/lang/veirs, a stunning musical collaboration with Neko Case and Laura Veirs. If you haven’t heard it yet, do yourself a favor and have a listen.
She’s won more singles tennis titles than anyone, male or female — 167. When it comes to the title of her sexuality, however, she received pressure from the media to reveal it. In 1981, shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen, she came out. She lost some endorsements and sponsorships, bur she’s become a voice for the LGBT movement and remains one of the best athletes in history.
It's safe to say art and literature would not be the same without Gertrude Stein. Intellectual, writer, poet, critic, and collector, Stein was a cultural force to be reckoned with. When she moved to Paris in 1903, she became a member of the city's avant-garde, making her home a center of culture. Her book Q.E.D. (1903) told the story of a lesbian love affair, and in Tender Buttons (1914), she returned to the subject of lesbian sexuality. Her literary works remain hallmarks of early feminism and critiques of patriarchal language.
“Son of a Preacher Man” may have been the only man who could ever reach the great pop diva, but she gave the ladies a shot too. Dusty came out as bisexual in 1970. Dusty's life was marred by drug and alcohol abuse, but she emerged even stronger, recording a total of 21 studio albums, touring the world, and becoming a pillar of blue-eyed soul.
Josephine Baker was one the first sexually liberated public figures I ever learned of. As a boy, I was mesmerized by the way she danced and sang, but as is so often the case with artists of a liberated sensibility, her story ran deep. She experienced backlash from dancing nearly nude onstage for a bourgeois Parisian crowd in the 1920s but was eventually celebrated for having brought jazz to Europe. She sang for the troops in World War II and used that as a platform to speak out against racism and promote peace. She adopted a dozen children, creating a multicultural, polyglot family that became known as “the rainbow tribe.” Her goal was to demonstrate to the world that racism and hate are taught and that love exists across borders and color lines.
The Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers)
Folk icons who rose to fame in the early '90s, the Indigo Girls are Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. The two originally met in high school in Decatur, Ga., but didn't record an album together until 1987, when they were reunited at Emory University. Their careers are inextricably tied to their charitable and advocacy work. In addition to being out and proud voices for gay rights, they also focus their efforts on environmental preservation, Native American rights, and abolishing the death penalty. They also appeared in an episode of Transparent, “Man on the Land,” in which my mom was background talent. Topless. In the woods. NBD.
Team Dresch created a defining moment in queer history. Just like Sleater-Kinney, Team Dresch grew out of the indie rock scene of Olympia, Wash. The band members were some of the first out lesbian queercore revolutionaries and were instrumental in defining the queercore sound of the 1990s. The original lineup included Donna Dresch (guitar and bass), Jody Bleyle (guitar, bass, and vocals), Kaia Wilson (guitar and vocals), and Marcéo Martinez (drums) .The band announced a reunion right after Donald Trump’s inauguration — the timing couldn’t be better. When asked by writer Mathew Singer why Team Dresch decided to get back together, Kaia Wilson simply said, “You can never get away from the sound of a woman who loves you. That's our band. Our band is the woman who loves us.”