It has been close to eight years since Barack Obama last appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Back in February 2008, then-Senator Obama was still months away from taking the Democratic nomination away from Hillary Clinton, whose frontrunner status had evaporated after losses in Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.
There was no dancing for Obama this time. No Whip/Nae Nae or games of “Heads Up!” as Clinton has eagerly done on the show in the past few months. Instead, Obama’s conversation with Ellen DeGeneres was mostly a heartfelt reflection on his presidency. And he surprised the host by giving her credit for what has been perhaps the biggest social sea change of the last eight years.
“I cannot thank you enough for what you have done for the gay community,” DeGeneres told the president to cheers from her studio audience.
Calling nationwide marriage equality and the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” some of his “proudest” achievements, Obama quickly turned the praise around on DeGeneres. As much as he has been able to do with laws, he said, “Changing hearts and minds, I don’t think anyone has been as influential as you on that. I really mean it. That’s true.”
“Your courage—and you’re just really likable,” Obama continued as DeGeneres visibly took a deep breath to compose herself. “You being willing to claim who you were, that 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. I’m so proud of you.”
DeGeneres was speechless for a moment before delivering the perfect joke in response. “I’m not really gay,” she deadpanned. “I just thought it worked and I had to stick with it because people responded well.”
When DeGeneres appeared on Time magazine's famous “Yep, I’m Gay” cover close to two decades ago, she couldn’t have imagined how well people would ultimately respond. On April 14, 1997, the comedian was one of the first major figures to make that pronouncement in such a public way. Two weeks later, her sitcom character on Ellen did the same.
Though she dealt with a good deal of backlash immediately following her decision to come out, and ABC decided to cancel her sitcom just one year later, she was soon back with another show that ran for two years on CBS. But all of that pales in comparison to the wild success of her syndicated daytime talk show, which is in its 13th year on the air. The show holds the record for most Daytime Emmy wins for Outstanding Talk Show Entertainment and is still consistently the most-watched daytime talk show on TV.
The year after DeGeneres came out, Will & Grace, featuring two openly gay men in its main cast, premiered on NBC and remained a hit for eight seasons. When Vice President Joe Biden came out in support of marriage equality in 2012—ahead of Obama—he cited that show in his interview with Meet the Press host David Gregory. “I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public more than almost anything anybody has done so far,” he said. “People fear that which is different. Now they're beginning to understand."
It took President Obama another 14 years to complete his “evolution” on same-sex marriage. As late as 2008, he said he believed marriage should be “between a man and a woman,” but by 2012 he had reversed that position. “I’ve just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama told ABC News’ Robin Roberts, herself a prominent gay woman in the public eye.
And DeGeneres is not the only pop culture figure who has had an impact on Obama. The president and first lady regularly call Modern Family one of their favorite shows. Obama’s favorite character on The Wire, Michael K. Williams’s Omar Little, just happened to be gay as well. For those who don’t have LGBT people close to them in their lives, characters like Mitch and Cam and figures like DeGeneres can make a world of difference when it comes to empathy with those who may seem different.
Perhaps it took DeGeneres longer than she would have wanted to achieve the level of equality she wanted when she first came out all those years ago. And as a whole, the cause still has a ways to go, especially if anyone on the Republican side is elected president this fall.
But as DeGeneres watched the President of the United States give her credit for “changing hearts and minds”—including his—on this vital civil rights issue, you could sense just how vindicated she felt.