Ellen DeGeneres tried to praise President Barack Obama for his advocacy on gay rights on her show Friday. But the president made sure to praise DeGeneres for the work she has done in this area too.
It began when DeGeneres thanked Obama for his work on gay rights — his advocacy for same-sex marriage, his executive orders protecting LGBTQ workers in the federal government, repealing "don't ask, don't tell," and so on.
But Obama flipped the script on DeGeneres. He said:
As much as we've done with laws and ending "don't ask, don't tell," etc., changing hearts and minds, I don't think anybody's been more influential than you on that.…
Your courage, and you're just really likable. … You being willing to claim who you were then suddenly empowers other people. And then suddenly it's your brother, it's your uncle, it's your best friend, it's your co-workers. And then attitudes shift, and the laws followed. But it started with folks like you.
If you talk to advocacy groups, they'll tell you a very similar narrative. Freedom to Marry in particular is credited with changing hearts and minds — which allowed the laws to change by building support — by getting people to simply come out to their friends and families. Once that happened, people realized that same-sex couples are, really, just like opposite-sex couples. And so change swept through America.
Celebrities like DeGeneres played a huge role in changing those hearts and minds by putting a face on LGBTQ rights issues. But DeGeneres is particularly influential here: Despite the major risk to her career, she came out fairly early — in the 1990s — and despite a calamitous patch has since built an enormous following. And it ultimately helped Americans see that gay people are just like anyone else, and deserve the same rights.