Top 10 Lesbian, Queer or Bisexual Celebrities We Remember Being Out Back Then

In our recent Autostraddle Grown-Ups Survey for readers over 29, we asked “who was the first lesbian or bisexual celebrity or public figure you remember being aware of?” Although the question was intended to be about women, many named men regardless!

Below are the Top 10 most popular answers, in order of popularity. Some honorable mentions who almost made the cut: Danish-British writer / comedian / producer Sandi Toksvig, pop star Madonna, singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco, singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman, German entertainer Hella von Sinnen and comedian Lily Tomlin. There were also many mentions of Freddie Mercury, Boy George and David Bowie.


The Top Ten Most Popular Answers To “Who was the first Lesbian or Bisexual Celebrity / Public Figure you were aware of?”

10. Angelina Jolie

Jenny Shimizu and Angelina Jolie, 1995

Jenny Shimizu and Angelina Jolie, 1995

Angelina Jolie had her bisexual awakening in 1995 on the set of Foxfire, when she met Jenny Shimizu and “fell in love with her the first second I saw her.” Jolie said she would’ve married Jenny if she hadn’t married her first husband, Johnny Lee Miller. Shimizu says their relationship continued for quite some time, even while Jolie was with other people, but that it was definitely over by 2005. When asked in 2003 if she was bisexual, Jolie said, “Of course. If I fell in love with a woman tomorrow, would I feel that it’s okay to want to kiss and touch her? If I fell in love with her? Absolutely, yes!”


9. Sandra Bernhard

© Deborah Feingold/Corbis   (1988)

© Deborah Feingold/Corbis (1988)

Sandra Bernhard has never been shy about who she is. This includes her legendary appearance on The David Letterman Show in 1988 with Madonna, during which the pair alluded to their sexual relationship, and Bernhard “joked” that Madonna is better than Sean Penn in bed. A 1993 Newsweek article refers to Bernhard as an “avowed bisexual.’ In a 2013 interview with Between The Lines, Bernhard said, “I’ve never really come out. That’s never been my thing. I never made a definite statement about my sexuality. Obviously, I’m the torchbearer for people just to be comfortable in their own skin, and that’s what my whole philosophy has always been. I never needed to come out, because I came out as a person with many different facets to her personality since the beginning of my career. And that’s what I stand for.”


8. The Indigo Girls

 © Neal Preston/Corbis (1993)

© Neal Preston/Corbis  (1993)

Nobody was surprised but everybody was appreciative when Amy Ray and Emily Saliers came out in an April 1994 issue of OUT Magazine, right before releasing their hit album Swamp Ophelia. “Here’s something you probably already know,” wrote The Advocate. “The Indigo Girls — Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — are lesbians…. the girls’ publicist tells us they feel ‘beautiful’ after finally unburdening themselves. Beautiful, yes, and a whole lot closer to fine, we bet.” Real talk: they remain my favorite musical situation of all time. SORRY I CAN’T HELP IT. OLD HABITS DIE HARD. For the record, The Indigo Girls were my first lesbians. Having a lesbian Mom in 1994 meant our CD rack was a flaming homosexual.


7. Billie Jean King

Original caption: "Tennis star Billie Jean King answers questions at a press conference here, in which she admitted that she carried on a homosexual relationship several years ago. The admission came as a result of allegations by Marilyn Barnett, a former hairdresser who claims she and Mrs. King were lovers. The suit says the former tennis star had promised to give Miss Barnett a Malibu, California, beach home." (Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Original caption: “Tennis star Billie Jean King answers questions at a press conference here, in which she admitted that she carried on a homosexual relationship several years ago. The admission came as a result of allegations by Marilyn Barnett, a former hairdresser who claims she and Mrs. King were lovers. The suit says the former tennis star had promised to give Miss Barnett a Malibu, California, beach home.” (Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Billie Jean married attorney Larry King in 1965, realized she liked women in 1968, and had an abortion in 1971, believing that her marriage wasn’t solid enough to bring a child into it. Also in 1971, Billie Jean fell in love with her secretary, Marilyn Barnett. In 1981, Barnett filed a “palimony” lawsuit against Billie Jean, which resulted in Billie Jean being outed, becoming the first prominent professional lesbian athlete — and losing $2 million in endorsements and contracts. “I was outed and I think you have to do it in your own time,” King told The Sunday Times. “Fifty percent of gay people know who they are by the age of 13, I was in the other 50%. I would never have married Larry if I’d known. I would never have done that to him. I was totally in love with Larry when I was 21.” She also spoke about growing up in a homphobic family, suppressing her feelings through eating disorders, and struggling to be honest with her family. “I couldn’t get a closet deep enough. I’ve got a homophobic family, a tour that will die if I come out, the world is homophobic and, yeah, I was homophobic… At the age of 51, I was finally able to talk about it properly with my parents and no longer did I have to measure my words with them. That was a turning point for me as it meant I didn’t have regrets any more.” Now 71, Billie Jean lives with her life partner, 58-year-old tennis player Ilana Kloss.


6. Elton John

Although the survey (perhaps not clearly enough) intended to ask about the first lesbian or bisexual female celebrity you were aware of, Elton John — a gay man — was such a popular answer that it seemed worth including.

Elton John with his wax figure, 1976, via The Mirror

Elton John with his wax figure, 1976, via The Mirror

After divorcing from his wife of four years in 1988, Elton John told Rolling Stone that he was “comfortable” being gay. In 1976,  he’d told the same magazine that he was bisexual. He and his partner, filmmaker David Furnish, were one of the first couples to form a civil partnership after England’s Civil Partnership Act went into effect in 2005.  They legally married in December 2014, and have two sons.


5. Rosie O’Donnell

© Frank Trapper/Corbis

© Frank Trapper/Corbis (2002)

Rosie O’Donnell thanked her then-partner Kelli with an “I love you, Kelli!” in her 2001 Daytime Emmys speech, but she came out officially at a Ovarian Cancer Research benefit in 2002, announcing, “I’m a dyke!” She was two months way from finishing her enormously popular afternoon talk show, The Rosie O’Donnell Show and wanted to be able to speak freely about her personal stake in gay adoption issues happening at the time. She went on Diane Sawyer to do just that six weeks after the comedy club. She cut her hair shortly thereafter and it was the alternative lifestyle haircut heard ’round the world.


4. Martina Navratilova

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS (1982)

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis (1982)

Although she later identified as a lesbian, tennis legend Martina Navratilova had just become a United States citizen when she told a New York Daily News reporter in 1981 that she was bisexual. She also told him she’d dated Rubyfruit Jungle author Rita Mae Brown, but asked him to hold the article ’til she was ready to come out. He published it without her go-ahead. Consequently, Navratilova and her girlfriend Nancy Lieberman gave an interview to The Dallas Morning News in which Navritilova affirmed that she was bisexual, that she and Nancy were in a relationship, and that Nancy still identified as straight. Navratilova’s next relationship, a six-year situation with Judy Nelson, ended in a very public legal battle. Navratilova married her current wife, Julia Lemigova, in 2014. She is considered by many to be the best tennis player ever.


3. k.d. Lang

© Frank Trapper/Sygma/Corbis (1993)

© Frank Trapper/Sygma/Corbis (1993)

k.d. Lang came out in The Advocate in June 1992. “As bold as k.d. lang is, the Grammy-winning singer was clearly nervous about coming out in the June 16, 1992 issue of The Advocate,” the magazine reflected in 2012, “you can’t blame her — the AIDS crisis was raging, there was a Bush in office, and LGBT celebrities were mostly nonexistent. With equal amounts of determination and trepidation, lang became one of the first celebrities to crack open the closet door, laying a blueprint for Melissa, Ellen, and Neil.” She expressed nervousness about not wanting to hurt her connection to gay culture but also not wanting to hurt her mother. In 1993, she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair with Cindy Crawford. The iconic photograph by Herb Ritts featured Lang in a barber chair and Crawford, in a tiny black thing, appearing to shave Lang’s face. Lang told the magazine that coming out hadn’t negatively impacted her career.


2. Melissa Etheridge

© Neal Preston/Corbis

© Neal Preston/Corbis (1993)

Although Melissa Etheridge was openly gay in her personal life, she didn’t come out publicly until 1993, when she was 32, referring to herself as a “proud lesbian” at a gay inaugural bash for Bill Clinton. A year later she appeared in People magazine with her “live-in lover,” Julie Cypher. Cypher was married to Lou Diamond Phillips when they met (on the set of the “Bring Me Some Water” video, Cypher was the assistant director) but she found herself drawn to Etheridge, having never considered before that she might be a lesbian. They were together until 2000, during which time Cypher birthed two children. David Crosby was the sperm donor. Etheridge went on to date and eventually marry and have more children with actress Tammy Lynn Michaels — they started dating in 2002 and separated in 2010 — and is presently married to actress/producer Linda Wallem.


1. Ellen DeGeneres

Image by © Terry Lilly/ZUMA/Corbis

Image by © Terry Lilly/ZUMA/Corbis (1997)

A full 56% of you cited Ellen DeGeneres as the first lesbian celebrity you were aware of. Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly on The Oprah Winfrey Show in February 1997, in anticipation of her sitcom character, Ellen Morgan, coming out. She said shortly thereafter to Entertainment Weekly, “If I do it right, I’m gonna have a career that will grow, and I’ll look back on this as my infancy stage. I don’t believe you have one moment. You have many moments.” It ended up being more like her infamy stage, because America was clearly not ready for a lesbian celebrity like Ellen. But she was right about the moments. She came back, she had many moments, and now she is bigger than ever. Ellen married actress Portia De Rossi in 2008.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2676 articles for us.

45 Comments

  1. Renee Richards, the transfemale tennis player, back when all of you were just glimmers in someone’s eyes! 😛

    And k.d. lang who melts my heart into a pool of female loving vulnerability when she sings “Hallelujah”… or “Constant Craving”….

  2. I forgot about kd lang when I filled out the survey! I remember seeing that magazine cover in 1993 at Supercuts before a haircut. Then when I got home, I asked my mom to drive me right back so I could ask them if I could keep it, and she did and they did.

    I got my license late 1993, so that magazine must’ve been early 1993.

    Two years later when I was 18 I bought a copy of Playboy with Drew Barrymore from the gas station across the street from that Supercuts. That was the only Playboy I ever bought.

      • It was nerve wracking. That’s why I went to a random gas station.

        I also remember going to the library and sliding open a small wooden drawer filled with index cards to look for books classified under “Homosexuality.” (There were two, btw)

        The internet sure has changed things!!

    • I recently bought a 1997 issue of Playboy from a consignment shop because it had Sandra Bernhard on the cover! (And yes, naked pictures of her inside, and they are probably the best pictures ever published in Playboy.)

  3. I had answered kd lang because she was definitely the first person on my radar at about 11 years old, but Melissa Etheridge was probably the second, and the most influential for me as a kid and teenager.

    I remember my dad had a bunch of her CDs and we would jam to them in the car together all the time.

  4. Shoutout to kd lang for being the vehicle for my mom and I discussing my sexuality. Six months after I came out to my bemused/concerned parents, we went to see the kd lang ballet (it was gorgeous and SUPER GAY), after which my mom turned to me in the car and said “so you’re really a lesbian, huh?”

    On an unrelated note, I’ve had a note that just says “Indigo girls – gay or sisters???” saved in my phone for two years from the time 18 year-old me was drunk in the back of a cab while they were interviewed on a late night talkshow.

  5. It was so hard for me to remember who I knew about first. My mom was a big tennis fan, so I knew who Billie Jean King and Martina N were, but I have no idea when I became aware of their sexual orientation – probably not until I was in college or later.

    I’m one of the goof balls who answered Bowie – he and Virginia Woolf were the only two bisexuals I knew of when I started coming out in the early 90s – and frankly neither seemed like a useful role model.

  6. Actually, for me it was two fictional characters: Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune! They were even the first lesbian erotic images I Yahoo!ed–yes, I was still on Yahoo! then–on my own (as opposed to ones that I just stumbled on in the internet cache).

    The first REAL celebrity I found out was a lesbian was Ellen. ^_^

  7. I remember feeling like such a badass when I bought Melissa Etheridge’s CD as a preteen, before I had any conscious notion I might be anything other than straight. Like, maybe my parents wouldn’t let me get it or something. My young heart was all aflutter listening to “Come to my window” with this new perspective, which made so much more sense a few years later when I realized I like-liked girls.

  8. I think timeline wise it’s some kind of tie Angelina Jolie and Sailor Neptune for me. I mean Sailor Uranus too because she was clearly dating Michelle but uh that was different.

    Uranus didn’t ping as one of my kind the way Angelina and Sailor Neptune did and why she didn’t is probably because what was suppose to be masculine about her reminded me of someone’s mom.
    Now as an adult I see the cues as was suppose to see them, but as child it was she’s not straight because she’s with another woman.

    Watching Hackers was haaaaard because that dude was taking up Angie screen time and kissing my Angie and for years if I had to tell you who that dude’s name was or who the actor was all I’d have for you would be a shrug.
    It wasn’t out of spite it was just how forgettable and unimportant men were to my child brain. And the only reason I know the actor’s name now is because he’s on that show with Lucy Liu and sometime Natalie Dormer. xD

    • Right? I think when I speak of “earliest” I’m remembering when we all KNEW certain celebrities were lesbian/queer… which typically happened years before they came out publicly. (Indigo Girls, Melissa, Rosie…)

  9. Goodness I must have known about some of these other folks, but I have a terrible memory in general and for timelines in particular, and of course I grew up super sheltered by Republican Catholics.

    I have such a strong memory of all the rumors around Ellen, and particularly of being annoyed about them, and a little frustrated when she came out, because I identified with her (ie just because you’re not super girly doesn’t mean you’re gay!)

    Uh. Clearly I lacked self awareness at the time. I’m a little better now. Way more gay. Also way more girly WHO KNEW.

  10. Martina Navratilova was (and is) my hero. I was a big tennis fan as a child in the eighties and I remember so well how everything about Martina was “oh she looks like a man” “She looks like a shark” “She’s too muscular, she plays like a man” etc etc. And even at that age I thought this was so much bullshit. I loved that she was strong and fierce like the men. And she just ignored all the things that were said about her and won anyway. Amazing role model, thank you Martina.

  11. I find it amusing that several people here and on the original survey page are like “Argh! I got it wrong!” when they forgot someone, as though they were mis-answering questions in the big gay quiz of their lives. I think it’s ok. I don’t think Ellen/Martina/Melissa Etheridge will be lurking when they film This Is Your Gay Life and suddenly jump out and shout “HOW COULD YOU FORGET ABOUT ME?!” and then clonk you round the head with the big red book.

    …or will they?

  12. “Real talk: they remain my favorite musical situation of all time. SORRY I CAN’T HELP IT. OLD HABITS DIE HARD.”

    Agreed, Riese. I love the Indigo Girls so hard. Listening to Swamp Ophelia in my car as a senior in high school was my “oh shit I’m gay” moment.

  13. I remember my parents and I watching a 60 Minutes piece on Martina around the time she was playing one of her Wimbledon matches. I was a teenager, watching a female athlete thinking, ‘wow, she’s amazing. Girls really can be athletes!’
    The parental commentary went something like:
    Mum: God I hope she doesn’t win
    Me: Why?
    Mum: She’s not normal
    Dad: She looks like the south end of north facing camel.

    Yeah, thanks for that. Really helpful.

  14. I was pretty sheltered when I was young, so Ellen was definitely the first celebrity I knew of. And I remember her being discussed in youth group, and someone saying “I don’t get it, can’t they just be best friends? They don’t need to have sex.” And I felt all “of course it’s different, being in love is not just friendship + sex, sex optional, of course it’s different, why can’t they see it’s different?” but I kept quiet. I kept quiet the whole conversation.

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