When Ellen DeGeneres came out: The 20th anniversary
Twenty years ago, 1997 was a milestone for the LGBTQ because it was the year when Ellen DeGeneres came out.
Life was so much different two decades ago and Ellen should be hailed as a hero: if lesbians have a monetary currency, she should be on the 100 dollar bill.
Ellen’s coming out paved the way for a lot of visibility and acceptance going for the LGBTQ. As the Washington Post put it, she made “gay okay.”
Not only that, it was also a brave thing to do as it was a bumpy ride for Ellen as she was both acclaimed and derided for it.
Ellen DeGeneres in Time
On April 14, 1997, Time magazine had Ellen on their cover with the-now famous line: Yep, I’m gay.
It was to coincide with her character, Ellen Morgan, coming out in her sitcom Ellen.
“I don’t think I could have done this a long time ago, and I don’t think people would have accepted it as readily as they do now,” Ellen told Time 20 years ago.
“Now I feel comfortable with myself, and I don’t have to be fearful about something damaging my career if it gets out, because now I’m in control of it– sort of. No one can hurt me now,” she said.
After that, she did the rounds of interviews as she became the woman of the moment in Oprah and 20/20 with Diane Sawyer.
As Oprah Winfrey would ask her later: “Did you expect it to turn into all of this?”
“I mean, I knew that it would be big, but I had no idea that it would be this big,” Ellen responded.
Ellen DeGeneres on a high
When her sitcom Ellen showed the “Puppy Episode” where her character came out, about 44 million people watched it.
It was controversial at best as this was the first TV show to: (1) have a lesbian character, and (2) have a lesbian actor come out as a lesbian character.
For years, Ellen had been hounded by the question of her true sexuality, which she would deflect by calling out her public and private spaces.
By 1997, in coordination with her producers and studio executives at ABC, the decision to come out both in public and as a TV character was ripe for the picking.
It was a two-episode subject, with Laura Dern as her love interest. It was also around this time that she started dating Anne Heche and two became part of the moment.
Ellen DeGeneres takes a hit
But being revolutionary has its sacrifices, and something as big as changing the American lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight.
The backlash against ABC was furious as angry letters poured in ranting against Ellen. There were death threats, Laura Dern couldn’t score a job after doing the show, and, a year later, Ellen was cancelled because of low ratings.
After the high, the crash was overwhelming: Ellen lost her career and soon, Heche left her for a man.
Ellen DeGeneres was fated
But Ellen’s coming out was destiny because it was the start for the LGBTQ to begin asserting themselves.
Soon, TV shows with LGBTQ characters were born, celebrities were coming out of their tightly lidded closets, and it became really okay to be gay.
Twenty years since Ellen came out, being LGBTQ is being celebrated. Ellen was able to bounce back, first with a daytime talk show, hosting the Oscars, and then winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Since that year on the cover of Ellen on Time magazine, much has changed for the LGBTQ– and for the better.