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As the Supreme Court prepares to take up two major cases this week dealing with gay marriage, there's a lot of talk about the rapid change in public opinion. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58 percent of Americans now believe gay marriage should be legal. That's just about the same amount that 10 years ago thought it should not be legal. That seismic shift in sentiment is reflected throughout American culture. And as NPR's Lynn Neary tells us, you can track it by looking at the life and career of one pop culture icon: Ellen DeGeneres.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: In 2008, during the brief window when it was legal for gays to get married in California, perhaps no couple drew more attention than Portia de Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres. A video of their wedding day captures the moment the two women first saw each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO CLIP)
PORTIA DE ROSSI: You look beautiful.
ELLEN DEGENERES: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
NEARY: Afterwards, photos of the couple were everywhere: DeGeneres, beaming, in a white suit, holding hands with de Rossi, the very picture of the princess bride so many young girls dream of being one day. It was a cultural touchstone that made gay marriage seem more normal. Dietram Scheufele, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin, says it was neither the first nor the last time DeGeneres has played that role.
DIETRAM SCHEUFELE: Ellen DeGeneres is an interesting, almost a litmus test of where we've been as a society. When she first came out and really put the issue of same-sex partnerships on, I think, people's agenda, and I mean people who otherwise wouldn't have thought about it, I think the country was still in a very different state.
NEARY: The country was in a very different state when Ellen DeGeneres made her TV debut on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson in 1986. That same year, the Supreme Court had ruled that states' anti-sodomy laws were constitutional. The AIDS epidemic was at its height. And while there was already a burgeoning gay rights movement, a lot of homosexuals were not ready to come out of the closet. Ellen DeGeneres was not about to break any barriers. Her personality was warm and non-threatening. Her comedy was safe.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")
DEGENERES: That whole fitness thing runs in my family, though, I think. My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She's 97 today and we don't know where the hell she is.
NEARY: Nearly a decade later in 1994, DeGeneres was still very much in the closet when her sitcom "Ellen" went on the air. She had a gawky, tomboyish persona, but her fans seemed to have no trouble seeing her as young single woman who just happened to be unlucky in love.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")
ALICE HIRSON: (as Lois Morgan) You want to know what your problem is, Ellen? You're too picky. I mean, you always look for a man's faults. Greg was too nice. Roger watched too much TV. Carl was a drag.
DEGENERES: (as Ellen Morgan) Drag queen, mother. Drag queen. There's a difference.
NEARY: DeGeneres' desire to say in the closet made sense, says Scheufele. In those days, you couldn't make it in show business if you were gay.
SCHEUFELE: I think it's just that we as a society had been in this mode for so long that if you're in Hollywood, if you have any success in entertainment, you obviously fit the gender stereotypes. And I think that's something that at the time was just not questioned.
NEARY: In 1996, the same year the Defense of Marriage Act was passed, DeGeneres was so deep in the closet she made a movie called "Mr. Wrong," playing a lonely young woman who goes out with a guy who turns out to be crazy because she feels so pressured to get married.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. WRONG")
JENNY TURNHAM: (as Aunt Belinda) Don't worry, Martha. You'll be the next one.
DEGENERES: (as Martha Alston) OK, Aunt Belinda. Thank you. Oh. She's drunk.
NEARY: One year later, gay marriage had not disappeared from the national conversation. And Ellen DeGeneres was no longer willing to be stuffed in the closet. She decided to come out on her sitcom. She was condemned by the religious right, sponsors pulled their advertising from the show, and DeGeneres ended up on the cover of Time magazine.
JESSICA HALEM: What's wonderful about her as a cultural figure is that it worked so wonderfully alongside political activism. So there's political activism and cultural change going on at the same time.
NEARY: Jessica Halem is a comedian and gay activist. She says it is no accident that it was a comedian who took the conversation about homosexuality to a new level.
HALEM: That's their role, is to be the jester, the fool who says let me talk about things that you might not be talking about yourself and let me invite you into that conversation.
NEARY: On the sitcom, Ellen finally, awkwardly, came out of the closet in an airport waiting room.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")
DEGENERES: (as Ellen Morgan) Why can't I say the word? I mean, why can't I just say...
NEARY: As Ellen struggles to admit she is gay to a woman she is attracted to, she accidentally leans over an open mic and announces it to the whole waiting room.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")
DEGENERES: ...be who I am. I'm 35 years old. I'm so afraid to tell people. I mean, I just - Susan, I'm gay.
HALEM: I remember that scene, which is just so beautiful because there's nothing like telling somebody you're gay and then it goes silent. But for her to say I'm gay and it's a laugh line and, you know, it lets us laugh. It lets us release some of the anxiety. It's just a really perfect moment for all of us to get to sort of breathe. Oh, my God, that's over, you know?
NEARY: Perhaps the biggest cultural shock that resulted from this very famous and public coming out was that it did not ruin DeGeneres' career. The "Ellen" show didn't last too much longer, but DeGeneres' career took off and mainstream America followed. Now, she has her own talk show, has hosted the Emmys and the Oscars, been a judge on American Idol. And, Jessica Halem points out, she's a spokesperson for companies like JCPenney and Cover Girl.
HALEM: Who thought we would have a lesbian selling makeup?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADVERTISEMENT)
DEGENERES: Hey, wrinkle face. That's what people could say if you're still using a liquid foundation that can settle into your lines and wrinkles and make you look older like an apricot or a prune. And I like both. I just don't want to look like one. Cover Girl...
NEARY: Halem says she is still amazed by how widely accepted DeGeneres is.
HALEM: It blows me away when I turn on her show and I see her in a vest and tie dancing with housewives from Ohio and - I was in Ohio and I, you know, I know them, right, and people - and she loves them and they love her, it's wonderful.
NEARY: But even Ellen DeGeneres can't win over everyone with her charm. Last year, there was an organized protest against JCPenney for using DeGeneres as a spokesperson. In another sign of how much things have changed, the company stood by her, the same company that pulled its advertising from the "Ellen" show when DeGeneres came out 15 years ago. Still, that vocal minority that would rather not see Ellen DeGeneres selling clothes is likely to keep fighting gay marriage, even if a majority of Americans no longer opposes it.
DEGENERES: I'll tell you, for many reasons, I'm feeling good. I'm feeling - there's a smile on my face, there's a spring in my step, and there's a ring on my finger and I...
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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