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.”
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.