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Betty DeGeneres has never suffered from stage fright. Not back in college at Louisiana State University, where she acted in plays alongside her anxiety-ridden classmate, future Academy Award winner Joanne Woodward. And certainly not since she became the face and voice of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the nation’s largest family and ally organization.
For nearly twenty years, Betty has been a passionate LGBT-rights activist, an inspiring role model for parents of LGBT children, and a highly sought-after public speaker to audiences nationwide. At an age when most people have either slowed down or just plain stopped, the energetic octogenarian remains as committed as ever to combating intolerance and homophobia.
A New Orleans native and retired speech pathologist, Betty began her extraordinary journey from private to public figure in 1997. Although her daughter Ellen was then enjoying great success as the star of her own ABC sitcom, staying in the closet was taking a heavy emotional toll on the popular comedian. In an unprecedented and professionally risky move, Ellen came out publicly on her series—and Betty was literally right there with her, appearing as an extra on that landmark episode in television history.
That Betty would support her daughter was no surprise to anyone who knew them; the two had always been exceptionally close. When Ellen came out to her during a long walk on a Gulf Coast beach, Betty immediately hugged her crying daughter. Still, Ellen’s revelation had been a big surprise to Betty, who had never suspected that her youngest child and only daughter might be gay. Then again, Betty had come of age at a time when homosexuality was neither discussed nor acknowledged.
Once Ellen came out publicly, Betty joined PFLAG, where her warmth and compassion won the hearts of veteran and new members alike. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) then contacted her to be its first non-gay spokesperson for National Coming Out Day. A stint writing an advice column for the PlanetOut website followed, as did a book deal with Harper Collins, which published Betty’s memoir, Love, Ellen: A Mother/Daughter Journey, in 2000; a second book, Just a Mom: Heartfelt Advice from a Mother Who Understands What It Means to Love and Support a Gay Child, was published later that year.
Of course, not everyone has greeted Betty with open arms and warm applause. Religious fundamentalists and ultra-conservative commentators have taken more than their fair share of potshots at Betty, who’s handled their attacks with grace and good humor— even when the level of vitriol has frustrated and angered her. Yet Betty soldiers on, “fighting the good fight” on behalf of the LGBT community, which still faces many challenges, particularly with regard to marriage equality and transgender prejudice.
Today, the woman formerly best known as “Ellen’s mother” has made a name for herself: Betty DeGeneres, LGBT-rights activist.
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