When comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres publicly came out as a lesbian on her sitcom in 1997, she knew she could count on her No. 1 fan - her mom - to support her.
"If you are a mother, you are first, foremost and always a mother," explained Betty DeGeneres in a Social Justice Speaker Series lecture on April 23 in the Soda Center.
Betty DeGeneres has become a public figure in her own right, as a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign and author of Love, Ellen, a chronicle of her relationship with her famous daughter.
"Betty DeGeneres knows how to love, not judge, and shows us how it's done," said Keelia Murphy of the College's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in her opening remarks.
DeGeneres recounted how her daughter's decision to go public about her sexuality on national TV initially led to a firestorm of criticism, with sponsors pulling their ads and ABC canceling the "Ellen" sitcom.
In the past decade, however, Ellen DeGeneres has become one of the most popular figures on television as an Emmy-award winning talk show host. DeGeneres said her daughter's openness has made a huge difference in the public's understanding and acceptance of homosexuality.
"The closet is a very stifling place to live," she said. "When Ellen came out publicly on her show, she received letters from people all around the world thanking her for making it easier for them to come out to their parents."
Betty DeGeneres recalled thinking when her daughter told her she was gay that her "girl-next-door-type" child could become the object of bigotry. She also remembered thinking her daughter's engagement picture wouldn't appear in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the mark of arrival in New Orleans society.
"Ellen has more than made up for that engagement picture, I think," she joked.
DeGeneres said she hopes to see progress on the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, designed to prevent on workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The House of Representatives approved a partial version of the bill in November, but the Senate has yet to act.
"There have been wonderful strides in the last 10 years, but it's outrageous that this law hasn't passed," she said.
She also said laws against banning gay marriage "discriminate against tax-paying citizens who happen to be gay and lesbian."
While acknowledging that gay men and women still face prejudice, DeGeneres is optimistic that today's college students have a different perspective of sexual identity.
"Thankfully, there's less bigotry with each generation," she said. "Those who don't celebrate diversity at least tolerate it."
-- John Grennan
Office of College Communications
Photo by Gorbachev Lingad '10