The coming-out-as-media event dates to the 1970-80s, with pronouncements (by turns saucy and poignant) from such celebrities as David Bowie and Rock Hudson, and reached its apotheosis in 1997 with the concurrent coming out of Ellen DeGeneres and her sitcom self. Assessing that show’s post-coming out decline in her seminal 2001 article “Ellen: Making Queer Television History”, Anna McCarthy argues that the representational politics of being “uneventfully” gay every week proved unnavigable. Two decades later and still “public lesbian number one” (Reed 2005), courtesy of her more sustainably successful daytime talk show, DeGeneres recently ceased dancing – her daily call-out to being queer (Moore 2007) – and caught flak for her friendship with George W. Bush. With what McCarthy terms DeGeneres’s “serial homosexuality” well-established after 17 seasons but her queer persona still scrutinized, LGBTQ representation circa 2020 is embedded within the televisual everyday even as the politics of queer celebrity remain contested, and moreover challenged by increasing numbers of celebrities who are already out when fame finds them. With the performative milestone of coming out dislodged from their constructed star personae and career timelines, how is “post-closet” queer celebrity re-signified for a “Peak TV” era?
Having first garnered a LGBTQ fan base as an ensemble performer on Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show (2007-2010), Kate McKinnon crossed over to mainstream celebrity in 2012 by joining the cast of Saturday Night Live. The long-running show’s first out lesbian (and only the second out) cast member, she and SNL downplayed this new “making queer TV history” moment in her ascendant career arc. Both on SNL and in her most noteworthy film role to date, as quirky gearhead Dr. Jillian Holtzmann – whose unspecified sexual orientation appears studio-mandated – in Paul Feig’s female-cast Ghostbusters reboot from 2016, McKinnon’s queerness is rarely/barely articulated in direct terms but gets conveyed through campy celebrations of queer(ed) media history (SNL’s Cagney & Lacey spoof Dyke & Fats, a Carol parody aired at the 2016 IFC Spirit Awards, her recent turn as Elsa in SNL’s Frozen II skit) and queer performance traditions (her drag king Justin Bieber, her gay piano bar-reminiscent rendition of “Hallelujah,” performing as Hillary Clinton, following the 2016 election).
As a white cis femme lesbian, McKinnon’s appearance and eschewing of “queer flaunting” enable her “flying under the gaydar,” even as her stoking of ostensibly straight women’s obsessions to a degree not seen since Shane-mania in The L Word era has provoked both celebratory and reactionary response. Analyzing McKinnon as an already out LGBTQ celebrity, I read her comedic star persona and performances as engaging subversive queer affect and enacting reparative queer history, while simultaneously indicating the persistence of homonormative representational politics elsewhere signaled by nostalgia-infused reboots The L Word: Generation Q, Queer Eye, and Will & Grace. Yet as McKinnon’s 2020 Golden Globes tribute to DeGeneres (recipient of the Carol Burnett TV Achievement Award) revealed in its echoing of Ellen’s 1997 announcement, the coming out-as-media event retains its significance as a result of our sprawling contemporary mediasphere, as means to broadcast what she’d been telling us all along: “I was and still am [gay]!”
McCarthy, Anna. “Ellen: Making Queer Television History,” GLQ 7.4 (2001): 593-620.
Moore, Candace. “Resisting, Reiterating, and Dancing Through: The Swinging Closet Doors of Ellen DeGeneres’ Televised Personalities.” In Televising Queer Women: A Reader, ed. Rebecca Beirne (London: Palgrave, 2007), 17-32.
Reed, Jennifer. “Ellen DeGeneres: Public Lesbian Number One,” Feminist Media Studies 5.1 (2005): 23-36.