Kate McKinnon’s Golden Globes Tribute to Ellen Highlights How Far We’ve Come and How Far We Have Left to Go

Something shocking happened when Kate McKinnon presented Ellen DeGeneres with the Carol Burnett Award at the 77th annual Golden Globe Awards last night: I found out there are lots of people who had no idea Kate McKinnon is gay! Which is one of the reasons, I suppose, that these big time Hollywood awards shows that have been so rightly derided in recent years for their racism — and this year for inviting back a host who doubled down on his transphobia and faced exactly zero repercussions — continue to be important cultural markers in the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ equality. McKinnon presenting Ellen with the award at all speaks to the spectrum we operate on when we say, truthfully, that visibility matters.

In many queer circles, Ellen’s reputation has taken a huge hit over the past year. There was her defense of Kevin Hart’s homophobia last January; her defense of her friendship with George W. Bush, after they were spotted paling around at a Dallas Cowboys game in October; her deeply awkward interview with Daktoa Johnson in which Johnson called out Ellen for saying she wasn’t invited to Fanning’s birthday party when she actually was (and which a producer off-camera confirmed); and then the surreal news Twitter uncovered about how, in 2006, she gave Donald and Melania Trump a golden baby carriage with a chandelier inside it.

Ellen has countered all of that criticism by explaining repeatedly that she just wants to be nice to everyone, and it’s no surprise that niceness is one of the things McKinnon praised Ellen for last night. She thanked her for sharing “a roadmap for being funny that is grounded in an expression of joy” and “a desire to bring everyone together by laughing about the things we have in common.”

Last fall, over at Vox, Constance Grady rounded up the analysis of Ellen’s year-long PR slide and cut straight to the heart of the growing and vocal concern about her: “In many ways, it feels as though niceness is no longer enough, as though it might perhaps even be slightly immoral. In this age of Donald Trump and #MeToo and apocalyptic climate change and gun violence and all the other things that make our futures seem ever more uncertain, and as though those in power are ever more unqualified to help us — do we even want to be nice to the powerful anymore? Is uncritical niceness to people who have made the world a worse place a good and admirable thing?”

These are questions that aren’t going anywhere any time soon — probably, in fact, ever again, which is a very good thing — and of course that discourse continued last night. But that wasn’t the only thing McKinnon talked about in her two-minute speech. In easily the most vulnerable and candid remarks she’s made about her personal life and sexuality since landing on SNL in 2012 and skyrocketing in global popularity, McKinnon choked up as she recounted what it was like for her, as a gay teenager, to see Ellen open up about her sexuality.

“The only thing that made [being gay] less scary,” McKinnon said, “Was seeing Ellen come out on TV. She risked her entire life and her entire career to tell the truth, and she suffered greatly for it. Of course attitudes change, but only because brave people jump into the fire to make them change — and if I hadn’t seen her on TV, I would have thought, ‘I can never be on TV; they don’t let LGBTQ people on TV,’ and more than that, I would have gone on thinking maybe I was an alien and I didn’t have a right to be here.”

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The same is true for me. I was 16 when Ellen came out and it changed the trajectory of my life. The sacrifices she made to give me and Kate McKinnon and so many other queer women of a certain age the gift of seeing ourselves represented is something most of us will always honor and hold dear. Ellen is the very definition of a gay trailblazer; her decision to come out in 1997 is still rippling out positive effects in 2020. Even last night, the closet door cracked open a little wider because, apparently, loads of people really didn’t know McKinnon is gay and now they do and that still matters.

I teared up watching McKinnon tear up not only because I have this history in common with her, but also because I want so badly for Ellen to keep pushing the conversation forward, to not stop at making white women from Wisconsin feel okay about white lesbians getting married, to listen and learn and grow, to heed most of all the words of James Baldwin: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Ellen has done so much, but there is still so much left to be done.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1060 articles for us.

26 Comments

  1. Dammit, wish I could watch that video here in New Zealand.

    Us: We live in the future, distance has no meaning, everything is available everywhere, we can reach out and share across the globe!
    Media Conglomerates: Hold our regional copyrighted beer.

  2. This makes me emotional, because in a lot of ways, Kate was my Ellen. Seeing her be so openly herself, even if it wasn’t in explicitly gay roles, made me feel okay about being myself. I questioned my sexuality for a long time. Then I saw Ghostbusters. I walked out knowing that I was gay. It wasn’t even just how attractive she was in the film, although that didn’t hurt, it was the swagger and the confidence that she had in taking on such a androgynous character. I felt seen, and more than anything, I felt like I had the right to be myself. Thanks Kate.

  3. I think the critiques Ellen has been facing have been a long time coming. It’s good to remember that Hollywood figures, even the lgbtq+ ones we admire, are likely hoarding wealth and are not, when it comes down to it, allies to the most vulnerable among us.

  4. I was also shocked to learn how many people were commenting about their surprise about Kate McKinnon on Twitter last night! My friends and I are admittedly a little more motivated to know who all’s gay here

  5. It’s really tough for me to look up to Ellen, although I obviously an indebted to her trailblazing career. A person close to me has worked personally for many A listers and Ellen was one of the worst employers they ever had.

    “Nice” is a central part of her public brand, and I don’t doubt she has treated Kate McKinnon (someone in whom she can see herself) nicely, but it certainly wasn’t part of her core values in how to treat those less powerful than her when my friend worked for her. It seems to me that we as a community should be thankful for how her career choices benefited us socially, but we don’t need to hold her up as some kind of saint personally.

  6. Someone once remarked that revolutions always eat their own. Ellen unfortunately is the latest example of that. She was brave and demonstrated that gays and lesbians are not scary and just like everyone else. She did it by being open and funny and kind. Her marriage to Portia was simply about two people in love and not any different than traditional marriages. She broke down more barriers than any other person.

    She is now being attacked for being insufficiently revolutionary, for being insufficiently confrontational, for even being part of the establishment. It is so unfair to her.

    Hopefully she will be spared the fate of Danton at the hands of Robespierre.

    • I think we can both appreciate the positive impact she’s had on queer visibility, and also question whether she could be doing better on certain other issues with her very influential platform.

      I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on her niceness irl as a person, because I don’t know her and I don’t know what it’s like to be wildly famous and I’m going to take any second-hand points of view with a grain of salt. However, I do find some of her publicly expressed stances troubling, and I certainly don’t blame anyone for wanting to hold her to a higher standard. Just because somebody has done something revolutionary doesn’t mean they should never again be criticized.

    • Yeah. When I saw her at the game with GW I was like “gross” and made a lot of cracks to my friends about how disappointed and put off I was. And I was, truly. But it gets so exhausting how much people just harp on and on about celebrities and their every political thought/action. I have political views that I think would be deemed pretty acceptable by most left leaning groups, but I have a lot of personal flaws and man, I’m glad there’s not an accountability mob commenting on my every mistake and never letting it go. The way people talk about celebrities and their political opinions sometimes feels like when you have that one friend who can’t stop talking about a mutual friend’s flaws. It’s like yeah, it’s shitty that she never pitches in for an Uber when we go out drinking, but at some point it’s just like Christ, just let it go. Yeah, Karen is definitely inconsiderate but damn I’m tired of hearing about it. Hopefully that analogy makes sense haha.

      • Also this is more in response to a lot of things I hear about Ellen and other celebs generally, not this article which was nuanced and good. I’m speaking more of the general tide of judgmental casting off of Ellen and things such as Twitter smearing Kate Mckinnon for dating Bari Weiss in college and having the nerve to still be friendly with her and not publicly make a statement of disapproval about her college ex. It’s too much. It feels like misplaced energy.

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