Ellen DeGeneres did more to influence Americans’ attitudes about gay rights than any other celebrity or public figure, a new poll by Variety and branding expert Jeetendr Sehdev found.
The daytime host wasn’t the only person who played a key role in shaping hearts and minds. President Barack Obama, who endorsed same-sex marriage during his 2012 re-election bid after initially opposing it, was the second most cited figure, followed by openly gay “Glee” star Jane Lynch and openly gay comedian Rosie O’Donnell. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the fifth most influential voice on gay rights, the study found. Like Obama, Clinton initially opposed gay marriage before changing her views two years ago.
The results were calculated from a nationwide survey of 2,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 65. Polling was based on a combination of online studies and one-on-one interviews. The study was conducted as part of Variety‘s recent issue examining Hollywood’s role in the gay rights fight and its impact on the Supreme Court’s decision last week legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
DeGeneres first made waves in 1997 when she came out as gay on the cover of Time and on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Art imitated life, as DeGeneres’ character on her ABC sitcom “Ellen” also came out of the closet. There was a backlash, however. “Ellen” was cancelled due to falling ratings in 1998 and the comedian didn’t regain her professional stride until her talk show launched in 2003.
DeGeneres declined to be interviewed for the special Variety issue, but in a 2014 People piece she admitted she was shocked by the response.
“I thought everyone knew me and I didn’t think that one little adjective was going to define me,” she said, adding, “Now I look at it as a movie that I saw that someone went through, and I only experience the amazing life that I have right now.”
Respondents also cited a number of television shows with gay or lesbian characters as being a critical factor in altering their views. DeGeneres’ daytime show was the most frequently cited, followed by “Modern Family” and “The Fosters.” “Modern Family” features a gay couple, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, who is raising an adopted daughter. “The Fosters” centers on an interracial lesbian couple, played by Teri Polo and Sherri Saum, who are bringing up a mix of biological and adopted children.
Gay performers, advocates and shows with homosexual characters were only one factor in shifting attitudes, the study found. Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed cited gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters as the key influence in their beliefs, while a leading 84% referenced knowing someone who is out of the closet. Seventy-eight percent referenced prominent gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender figures as being a major influence, while 80% cited the role that straight supporters of gay rights have had in making them more comfortable.