When Ellen Degeneres came out via her sit com in 1997 (the famous “Puppy Episode“), it was a huge deal. ABC, the network that aired the show, did agree to another season afterwards, but with one caveat — that a parental advisory warning be aired before each new episode.
Think about that. It was so controversial to portray a queer story to a mainstream audience that the network felt obliged to warn viewers to monitor their children’s exposure to the content.
Fast forward 22 years, and shows like Glee, How To Get Away With Murder and American Horror Story make ABC’s former pearl-clutching ways seem archaic.
But while acceptance is at an all-time high, we’re still in the infancy of equality. Even in the last decade, high-profile coming outs have shaped the way America thinks about LGBTQ issues in vital ways, paving the way to, among other things, the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling.
Scroll down for a look at 10 stories that helped move the dial in the right direction…
Neil Patrick Harris — 2006
Harris says his choice to go public was influenced by falling in love, and while he’s sure to have found personal fulfillment in his decision, it meant more than that. Already a household name, Harris gave a broad national audience the chance to feel like they “knew” a gay person.
Straight fans of How I Met Your Mother to those dating back to the good old Doogie Howser days suddenly had a new reference point for a likable, charming gay man.
Dan Choi — 2009
Lt. Dan Choi served in the Iraq war from 2006-2007. After coming out on The Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009, he publicly challenged the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which banned gay soldiers from serving openly in the U.S. military.
He faced up to six months in federal prison for his actions. (Others who participated in the demonstration pleaded guilty.) Choi helped usher the issue of gays and lesbians serving in the military into the spotlight for much of America. In 2011, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was finally repealed.
All charges agains him were dropped.
Chaz Bono — 2009
Caitlyn Jenner famously helped make transgender a household term across the country in 2015, but she didn’t come out inside a vacuum (editor’s note: the physics of coming out in a vacuum gives us a minor headache). When Chaz, son of gay icon Cher and her late husband Sonny, went public with the decision to transition from female to male six years earlier in 2009, “trans” hadn’t yet caught hold on Main Street, USA.
Frank Ocean — 2012
“4 summers ago, I met somebody,” Ocean wrote on his Tumblr account, revealing that his first love was a man. “I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together.” Later, he told GQ about his decision to come out as bisexual: “There’s just some magic in truth and honesty and openness.” There’s also some magic in changing what it means to be a male hip hop artist, and Frank executed both beautifully.
Now we’re just waiting for a follow-up to his stellar debut album, Channel Orange. We’re ready when you are, Frank!
Tammy Baldwin — 2012
Give a shout out to the Badger State! When Tammy Baldwin won her 2012 Senate race in Wisconsin, she became the first out person to be elected to the US Senate, and the first female senator in her state. While she wasn’t exactly “in the closet” before her win, this is when much of the country became aware of her work.
Her progressive social politics made her (and continue to make her) a favorite of the left. Plus, she read the tea leaves perfectly on Obama’s marriage equality stance:
“Look, he is moving in the right direction on this issue,” she said in 2009. “He’s been crucial in equality efforts like the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and signing the Matthew Shepard hate crimes prevention act. I have no idea what goes on in another person’s mind. As a legislator, I need to be good at persuading people, counting votes and getting to 50 percent plus one.”
Jazz Jennings — 2013
Jazz Jennings first came to the public eye when she released a series of videos on YouTube about her experience being transgender. Since then it’s been one media appearance after then next, and now she’s spreading her message of inclusion on her own reality show, I Am Jazz.
She’s become a role model not only for other transgender young people experiencing similar hurdles towards finding acceptance within themselves and around them, but young people in general who share common threads while growing into the best version of themselves.
Jason Collins — 2013
“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’” Collins wrote when he became the first openly gay athlete from a major American team sport. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Collins coming out was a game changer, challenging deep-rooted homophobia in sports. “It starts with President Obama’s mentioning the 1969 Stonewall riots, which launched the gay rights movement, during his second inaugural address,” he added. “And it extends to the grade-school teacher who encourages her students to accept the things that make us different.”
Tim Cook — 2014
As the CEO of Apple Inc., one of the biggest and well-known corporations on the planet (not to mention the world’s most valuable brand according to Forbes), the impact of Cook coming out cannot be overstated. “Kids are getting bullied in school, kids were getting discriminated against, kids were even being disclaimed by their own parents…I needed to do something,” he later described as his inspiration to share his story.
Michael Sam — 2014
Sam’s professional football career may not have taken off exactly as he’d hoped, but his coming out ahead of the 2014 NFL draft sparked a national discussion about homophobia in sports. Then there was that iconic shot on ESPN when he learned he’d been drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Michael, shedding tears of joy, shared a passionate kiss with then-boyfriend Vito Cammisano.
It was certainly a first for sports fans, but it won’t be a last.
Rhodes Brothers — 2015
Rising internet stars Austin and Aaron Rhodes decided to start 2015 off in a big way. The twin brothers decided to use their social media platform to come out to their father over the phone. And they recorded the entire thing.
Now one year later, the Rhodes brothers have garnered over 400,000 subscribers and 20 million (!) views on Youtube.
Their video shows the guys calling their father in Ohio while struggling to break the news. When they finally do, their father offers pretty much the perfect response.
“It’s the way things are, you know?” he says. “You’re grown people. You grew up in a lot different generation than me. I just don’t really know what to say — you know I love you both and that’ll never change.”