Celebrities thinking about declaring their sexual preference as a means of snagging EW’s Entertainer of the Year award, take note: Ellen DeGeneres does not win this year’s prize just because her particular announcement — ”Yep, I’m Gay,” to quote TIME’s jaunty headline — was the most highly advertised acknowledgment of homosexuality since Walt Whitman burbled ”I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”
Nor does DeGeneres get the trophy just because, in allowing her alter ego, Ellen Morgan, to discover her sexuality on Ellen in the show’s fourth season, she made cultural history by staging the first coming out of a starring character on a network sitcom. True, the April 30 episode — an inspired hour that rose to the occasion with the kind of pointed, funny writing that fans of the genial stand-up comedian were hoping for all along — was the No. 1-rated show on TV that week. But why wouldn’t it be, with guest spots by Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Oprah Winfrey, Billy Bob Thornton, Melissa Etheridge, and k.d. lang?
DeGeneres is not Entertainer of the Year simply because, in letting Ellen Morgan live her sitcom life as a lesbian, Ellen has become a better, more focused TV show, one that finally showcases the comedian who inspired it to best advantage. Many stand-up-personality-based comedies take a while to find a strong voice. If you need a reminder, look at the earliest episodes of Seinfeld.
And for Pete’s sake, Ellen DeGeneres is not getting the award simply to applaud her romance with actress Anne Heche, a relationship that has been monitored breathlessly since it began last March. That photos of the inexhaustibly social twosome are published so regularly these days is, perhaps, what would happen to any celebrity couple who entice photographers with public displays of affection. Plus, with these two, there’s the added girl-girl frisson. (The pair were even snapped in front of Bill Clinton last April at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner; so much for the love that dare not speak its name. Still, rumors to the contrary, they absolutely did not kiss in front of the President. Honestly, who would be so inappropriate?)
In the end, Ellen DeGeneres is Entertainer of the Year because, at a time when an acknowledgment of homosexuality has entered all aspects of popular culture, when diversity and acceptance are the words of the day but by no means entirely the deeds, and when more and more of the sizable population of homosexual men and women working in the entertainment industry today are weighing the risks of coming out themselves, DeGeneres allowed herself to become a poster girl — not for lesbianism, but for honesty. She volunteered to serve as a test case for whether a likable woman with a gentle, clean comedy act can flaunt a sexy girlfriend and still win friends, influence people, and maintain healthy Nielsen ratings. DeGeneres risked her professional reputation for personal freedom. And she pulled it off. She did good, important work, work that continues to shape the public discourse. And she found love.