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Safe Choices: The Problem With Celebrating Ellen DeGeneres’ and Neil Patrick Harris’ Acceptance as a Victory for All LGBT People

On Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Ellen DeGeneres has been tapped to host next year’s Oscars ceremony in a press release that came minutes after DeGeneres shared the news with her 21 million Twitter followers. It’s a gig that she’s done before — she hosted back in 2007 to favorable response — and the consensus seems to be that it’s a wise, safe choice for the Oscars producers after February’s controversial Seth MacFarlane, last year’s stodgy Billy Crystal, and the Anne Hathaway-James Franco tag team of awkwardness in 2011. But DeGeneres also demonstrates a major change in the appeal of LGBT entertainers in the mainstream, especially when a out lesbian is considered by many to be the “safest” choice.

Consider how far we have come in terms of tolerance since Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly as a lesbian on 1997. At the time, she had a very popular sitcom, and the show’s decision to follow her eponymous character’s coming out ultimately caused its ratings to decline in the following season, and the show was canceled in 1998. Despite returning with another short-lived sitcom in 2001, it wasn’t until she found success as a talk show host that her celebrity became, again, accepted by the mainstream. No longer was she playing a character on television who was a lesbian in the dating scene; this time, she was just herself, and her personal life was never a factor.

One could make the claim that Ellen DeGeneres ushered in a new wave of LGBT advocacy and tolerance with her highly publicized coming out. She is, really, the perfect lesbian to change the mind of any Middle American who is on the homophobic fence: she’s white, pretty, charming, and friendly. The same could be said for Neil Patrick Harris, who has played a straight womanizer on How I Met Your Mother for years and stole the hearts of everyone who saw him host the Tonys (as he’ll do again when he hosts the Emmys in September). It’ll be no surprise when Harris achieves for his EGOT — you know he’d never turn down hosting the Grammys or the Oscars — and it’s a testament to his uncontroversial sensibility. He’s the gay guy that straight people want to know: charming, attractive, funny, rich, white.

The major qualities that make DeGeneres and Harris the perfect gay entertainers, of course, is their near-lack of sexuality — it’s the whole sex part that seems to really bother the straight world, since gay sex is much more uncomfy than fashionable suits, show tunes, and quirky personalities. Both DeGeneres and Harris are happily partnered — to actress Portia DeRossi and actor David Burtka, respectively — and they have an air of respectability that is rare among most celebrities, much less openly gay people. But while their status is admirable and represents what all gays and lesbians are supposed to want to achieve, they do not necessarily represent the common gay and lesbian, especially in terms of mainstream acceptance.

So it’s curious, then, that Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris have become two of the most famous members of the LGBT community, acting not as spokespeople but rather as figures proving that the rest of us aren’t so bad. These are roles I’m not sure the two of them willingly took on, and I’m not positive the rest of the community is fully on board with this extremely exclusive pair representing all of us. But I don’t see Ellen DeGeneres or Neil Patrick Harris raising their voices any time soon, or questioning the status quo — simply because, as gay entertainers, they have benefited from it.

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