That’s the verdict of two new Pew Research Center surveys, one of the general U.S. population and the other of LGBT Americans specifically.
Not only was the comedian and television host by far the most frequently cited example of a gay or lesbian public figure in the general-population survey, she and President Obama were the leaders when LGBT Americans were asked to name a well-known figure who’s been important in advancing the rights of LGBT people.
DeGeneres was already a well-known comedian and star of her eponymous sitcom when she came out publicly as a lesbian 16 years ago. Since then, she’s established herself as a highly successful talk-show host, voice actress (“Dory” in Finding Nemo) and commercial spokesperson. A 31-year-old bisexual woman in our survey captured DeGeneres’ appeal and significance as well as anyone: “[S]he has been out for so long that it is no longer an issue, and older white women feel comfortable with her show. She normalizes LGBT people.”
Jason Collins, a center for the NBA’s Washington Wizards, was the second-most frequently mentioned gay or lesbian public figure in the general-population survey. Just before the survey was conducted, Collins became the first active male professional athlete in a major North American team sport to come out publicly as gay; he’s due to become a free agent next month. (The LGBT survey was conducted before Collins’ announcement.)
Two-thirds of LGBT adults said well-known people who are themselves open about being LGBT “helps a lot” in making U.S. society more accepting of the community generally; nearly as many said that about non-LGBT public figures supporting LGBT issues. However, 46% didn’t offer the name of a national public figure as important in advancing LGBT rights.