Sometimes, when faced with the difficult task of coming out, we rely on the stories of other women who have found success even after being identified as lesbians.
It can be reassuring to know that we’re in good company, and we truly are.
There are many women in Hollywood and in history who have had success despite the oppositions they faced for loving other women.
Read on to find some of our top choices for influential lesbian role models.
Ellen DeGeneres, comedian
Of course Ellen DeGeneres would make our list. She’s often considered the collective “mother” to the lesbian community, and for good reason – she was one of the first big Hollywood names to openly come out as a lesbian.
Although many of Ellen’s fans are in the gay community, she doesn’t market herself “exclusively” to lesbians, and in fact she sees a strong following of gay, straight, and bisexual fans. She actually publicly said that she “never wanted to be a spokesperson for the gay community” – which is in part why she is so admired.
She didn’t come out in hopes of being a role model – it just happened.
Jane Addams, social worker
You might not have heard of Jane Addams before, but she’s one of the pioneers of social work. She was born in 1860 and she found the Hull House in Chicago. Although the word “lesbian” wasn’t actually coined until 1890 and she wouldn’t have chosen to refer to herself as a lesbian, an analysis of her life would show that she would have fit the description by today’s standards.
Jane had a tough background that helped to make her relatable to others, and helped to define her interest in doing good. After all, those with the harshest pasts are often the ones who seek to make the brightest futures for others.
Jamie Babbitt, director
Jamie Babbitt is one of the lesser visible lesbians in Hollywood. She is a director who has been out for the entirety of her career, and she doesn’t shy away from making “typically” lesbian films. In fact, she’s the director of one of my personal favorites – But I’m a Cheerleader!
She likes to have mainly-women crews on her movies, and one in particular (Itty Bitty Titty Committee) had an entirely female crew. Her feminist and lesbian-positive outlooks make her a prime role model of what a lesbian can achieve.
Alison Bechdel, writer
As a writer myself, I find it fascinating to discover other famous lesbian writers. Alison Bechdel chronicles the life of lesbians in her comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For”, as well as her graphic memoir, “Fun Home”. She explores some deep issues through her comics and she helps to inspire those with similar experiences.
Gladys Bentley, blues singer
Gladys Bentley was a pioneer in lesbian visibility before it was cool. In the 1920s, she rose to fame by rewriting popular songs with dirty lyrics, and openly flirted with women in her audiences. At that time in American history, it was enough to be a butch lesbian – never mind the fact that she was a lesbian of color who had a very public relationship with a white woman.
Later in life, she claimed to have “cured” her lesbianism by taking female hormones and married a man. The man denied it, and the science behind her claims of “going straight” just isn’t there. Still, for a large portion of her life, she represented a willingness to be completely true to yourself and to put love first.
Michelle Bonilla, actress
Michelle Bonilla certainly isn’t one of the “big names” in American television, but she has had some pretty big roles. You might recognize her from her roles in E.R., Star Trek: Enterprise, or even Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. She admits that being out wasn’t even a conscious decision for her – it just sort of happened.
I was posed a question, are you gay? And why was I going to lie?”
It’s always reassuring to hear of people who don’t worry about “coming out”, but rather just being themselves. In a perfect world, everyone would just be free to be who they are.
Sara Gilbert, actress
Okay, I admit – Sara Gilbert made this list because I have a giant crush on her. I think I always have, actually, ever since her early days as Darlene on Roseanne (1988-1997). Of course, back then she was just “a tomboy” – but she has since come out as a lesbian. She supports a great deal of causes, including many animal rights organizations, and she is a vegetarian.
Barbara Gittings, activist
There aren’t too many people that have become famous based on their activism, but in some ways Barbara Gittings could be compared to the Martin Luther King, Jr. of gay rights. In the 1950s and ‘60s, she was a huge supporter of anti-discrimination legislation that would have put an end to workplace discrimination for homosexuals. She also helped to found her local chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (a lesbian social organization). She was a proud lesbian woman who felt that homosexuals should be judged for reasons beyond their sexuality. It’s a bit sad that we’re still fighting that battle 50 years later, but Barbara helped pave the way.
Gertrude Stein, writer
Gertrude Stein wasn’t exactly out of the closet while she was alive, but letters published after her death indicated that she had a lifelong relationship with Alice B. Toklas, which she referred to as a marriage. She was a well-received writer who even mentored some of the “greats”, like Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway. She continued writing and teaching until her death in 1946. In 1967, Alice was buried next to her – a testament to lifelong love. (Aww!)
Ellen Page, actress
When Ellen Page came out as a lesbian in 2014, there were many of us in the lesbian community who really weren’t all that shocked. But the fact that, in 2014, she still felt the need to come out publicly says a lot about the invisibility that we still face every day.
Her brave “coming out” speech was inspirational for many teenagers and young adults, and it paved the way for even more in Hollywood to come out. (Plus, if you haven’t heard her coming out speech, it’s pretty incredible.)
Sally Ride, astronaut
For any girl who grew up desiring to go to space, Sally Ride made that a real possibility. She was the first American woman in space, and she paved the way for many girls to grow up loving the sciences. Her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on her behalf after her death in 2012.
It was not widely known that she was a lesbian before her death, but her family said she made no attempts to hide her relationship with Tam amongst her private circle.