1. Ellen Degeneres
More than 39 million people tuned in to hear Ellen say the words "I'm gay" in April 1997. The words were uttered by the fictional character she played on her self-titled sitcom, though Degeneres herself had come out two weeks earlier on the cover of Time Magazine.
Prior to coming out, both Ellen and her show had enjoyed a fair to middling popularity. Overnight she became the worldwide face of LGBT equality, but there was also a great deal of negative backlash. The Ellen Show was cancelled the following year.
But the door had been kicked open. Though it took a few years for her career to recover, Ellen's courageous stand changed everything.
She has since sparred on air with then Presidential candidate John Mc Cain on her current chat show when he told her that they'd have to "agree to disagree" on the issue of marriage equality. "I'm good enough to sit at the same table with you," she told McCain.
These days, celebrities routinely come out, which often enhances their careers. LGBT people are now are all over the tube. It all began with Ellen, which earns her the number one spot.
2. Rosie O'Donnell
Some have criticized Rosie for not coming out until Ellen had made it safe to do so: in 1996 the two had joked about being "Lebanese" on Rosie's talk show. But Rosie has more than made amends: mother to five children, Rosie has become a powerful advocate for LGBT families, speaking openly about her brood while she campaigns for marriage equality. The owner of a home in Florida, she has led the LGBT adoption rights fight in the Sunshine State.
Never one to mince words, Rosie has been known to shout her opponents down. Though this has made her more than a few enemies on both sides of the fence, even her detractors often grudgingly admit that she's usually right.
A lover of musical theater, Rosie has been known to put her own money into failing Broadway shows she deemed worthy of support.
3. Marlon Brando
Considered by many to be the greatest film actor in history, Brando's early performances in classics like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) continues to inspire young actors to take their craft seriously.
Brando's eccentricities and his colorful private life became equally legendary--he fathered numerous children with a variety of women.
His bisexuality was rumored for years, with Hollywood insiders whispering about his alleged affairs with fellow 1950s superstars Montgomery Clift and James Dean.
Brando took it all in stride.
"Like a large number of men, I too, have had homosexual experiences," he said in a 1976 interview. "I am not ashamed."
4. David Bowie
No doubt the legendary glam rocker raised many eyebrows when he appeared as a Saturday Night Live musical guest in drag in the late 1970s. But actor/musician Bowie was open about his bisexuality as early as 1972. For years he dodged rumors about being caught in bed with Mick Jagger, an incident which was never proven.
But Bowie is definitely one of the Bs in LGBT.
But it was in 1976 that he finally declared to Playboy: "It's true—I am a bisexual. But I can't deny that I've used that fact very well. I suppose it's the best thing that ever happened to me."
Years later in a 1983 Rolling Stone interview he regretted his decision to come out, saying that his admission was "the biggest mistake I ever made."
But in a 2002 interview with Blender, he stated that, while the admission had caused him problems in the USA, it was no problem in Europe. "America is a very puritanical place," he said. "I think it stood in the way of so much I wanted to do."
Married for many years to the fashion model Iman, Bowie today laughs about questions regarding his sexuality.
5. Adam Lambert
Idol runner-up Lambert grew up in a world that's very different from what earlier celebrities had to live in. For one he shot to fame on America’s biggest singing competition American Idol. Before appearing on Idol he lived an out and proud life never thinking twice about hiding his sexuality. When photos of him kissing a guy and dressing in drag went viral, suddenly his sexuality was on everybody’s minds, and the more he stayed mum on the subject, the more the public wanted to know. During the show he refused to comment, instead choosing to focus on his music and performances.
Shortly after the season wrapped up with him coming in second place, he sat down for a 2009 interview on 20/20.
"Adam, are you gay?" he was asked.
"Yes, I am," he said. "I've been very comfortable with it for a very long time."
The admission enhanced his escalating career. Earlier this year the out, proud gay man took his powerful pipes to China, where he was equally open about his sexuality.
6. Anderson Cooper
Absolutely no one was surprised when the handsome CNN news anchor came out in 2012. "I'm gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn't be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud," he said to journalist Andrew Sullivan.
AC 360, his signature show on CNN, continues to pull in impressive numbers.
Cooper joins fellow out journalists Thomas Roberts, Rachel Maddow, Sam Champion, Don Lemon, and others, who have seen no career backlash as a result of coming out in our Brave New World.
7. RuPaul (and Sylvester)
Some of our famous out celebs could have taken a cue from the fabulous RuPaul. The drag artist has had hit records--which he performed in drag--and has been a celebrity spokesperson for a variety of products. Now a reality TV superstar on Logo, Ru has also been an actor. In 2000 he played a female role on the ABC daytime soap opera Port Charles. He also appeared as a school guidance counselor--a woman--in The Brady Bunch Movie (1995).
But Ru could play serious roles too: in 1995 he played a man in the made for TV AIDS drama A Mother's Prayer, and got strong notices for his work.
For two years he hosted a lively talk show on VH1, where he would often help his famous guests figure out their drag names.
Ru has been open about his homosexuality every step of the way.
RuPaul might have taken his cue from the late Sylvester. As early as the 1970s, openly gay Sylvester had a string of disco hits. Anthems like You Make Me Feel Mighty Real were wildly popular in both gay and straight dance clubs.
In 1979, Sylvester, clad in a mu-mu dress, appeared on the somewhat conservative The Merv Griffin Show. He told an obviously uncomfortable Griffin that he had just completed his role in the upcoming Bette Midler film The Rose.
"I'll be playing Miss Billie Holiday," Sylvester said gleefully.
8. Suze Orman
Financial guru Orman has written books, appeared in a series of well received PBS specials, contributes to Oprah Magazine, and is a CNN regular. She offers sound advice on how people can invest their money wisely and get the most bang for their buck--empowerment of women is a big part of her teachings.
In a 2012 interview on The View, Orman stated that she intended to vote for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney because she wants to marry her girlfriend. The admission hasn't affected her career.
In March 2013, Forbes Magazine named Orman as one of the most influential celebrities of 2013.
9. Neil Patrick Harris
In 1989, then 16 year old Harris won the title role in Doogie Howser MD, the TV series about a child prodigy who became a practicing physician. Since the series ended in 1993, Harris has enjoyed a successful career as a TV guest star, on Broadway and in a handful of films. Harris came out in 2006, referring to himself as a content gay man. He has since married his partner David Burtka, with whom he has children via a surrogate mom.
The couple discussed their relationship in a candid 2012 Oprah interview on OWN--they allowed Oprah's cameras into their home.
Harris' career has escalated since coming out. A popular Tony Awards host, he now co-stars in the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, in which he plays a womanizing heterosexual. And last month he hosted the Emmys.
10. Melissa Etheridge
Old school rocker Etheridge released her debut album in 1988, and immediately made an impression with her blusey, confessional lyrics and raspy voice. For several years she dodged questions about her private life, but soon grew weary of evading the truth. Her 1993 album Yes I Am served as her official coming out as a lesbian and was a huge success.
Now 52, Etheridge continues to record and tour, and has been open about her relationships with a variety of women.
11. Louis Edmonds
Edmonds was a leading player on Dark Shadows, the horror themed daytime soap opera that amassed a huge cult following in the late 1960s. He was one of only two actors to have appeared on both the first and final episodes of the serial, which produced over 1,200 episodes during it's five year run.
In 1979, he was cast as con artist Langley Wallingford on the iconic soap All My Children, a role he played for sixteen years. He received three Emmy nominations for AMC--his fans included TV legend Carol Burnett, who asked to appear on the show in 1983 and specifically requested that she work with Edmonds: Burnett appeared as Langley's long lost daughter.
During his career, which included dozens of stage roles, elegant, old-school gentleman Edmonds referred to himself as a "confirmed bachelor." But in the 1990s, he came out on stage when he appeared at a Dark Shadows fan convention. He was 71 years old.
A few years later, TV historian Craig Hamrick published Big Lou, a biography of Edmonds in which details of his life as a gay man in the New York theater world was revealed. Edmonds died in 2001, Hamrick died of cancer a few years later, but the book remains available at Amazon.
In 2011, Wayne State University Press published Harry M. Benshoff's Dark Shadows: TV Milestones, which put the iconic and unusual daytime serial in it's proper historic context. The book included frank discussions of why the show has such a huge gay fan base. Part of this was attributed to Edmonds, who was described as "a Tennessee Williams character in the flesh." The book suggests that Edmonds' "eloquent queer persona" may have prevented him from achieving success outside of New York's soap opera and theater stages.
12. Rock Hudson
Handsome, virile Hudson was a wildly popular leading man in films of the 1950s and 60s. Always cast in macho, heterosexual roles, he spent much of his life dodging rumors about his sexual orientation. During the 1950s he married his agent's secretary, allegedly to cover up the truth about his homosexuality. The marriage was a disaster.
In the 60s he starred in a series of romantic comedies with Doris Day, but the gay rumors persisted. One such rumor was that Hudson was "married" to popular TV star Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle) – Nabors, now in his 80s, has since come out.
When an emaciated Hudson joined the cast of the popular prime time soap Dynasty in 1984, the press wondered if he had AIDS. There were published accounts of Dynasty co-star Linda Evans refusing to kiss Hudson on camera out of fear of contracting HIV – Evans, who campaigned for increased AIDS funding during Dynasty's run, vehemently denied these allegations.
Shortly before he died of AIDS at age 59 in 1985, Hudson revealed in a statement to the press that he had AIDS, bringing face to the disease and in the process jumpstarting the campaign to prevent HIV.
"His illness and death have moved the fight against AIDS ahead more in three months than anything in the past three years," said Bruce Decker, at the time chairman of California's AIDS Advisory Board Committee. While activist Armistead Maupin commented: "I'm sure Rock's coming out will stand as a landmark in the gay community.”
Longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor, who knew of his gay lifestyle since the 1950s, visited Hudson a few days before he died.
After Hudson's passing, Taylor campaigned vigorously for AIDS funding, and appeared in PSA's encouraging condom use. Taylor helped found AMFAR--The American Foundation of AIDS Research.