WATCH: 15 Years After “Ellen”—And Ellen—Came Out

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ABC News’ Diane Sawyer chose Ellen DeGeneres as her Person of the Week on Friday, almost 15 years ago to the day after the funny lady came out of the closet on her sitcom, Ellen.

“If they found out I was gay, maybe they wouldn’t applaud. Maybe they wouldn’t laugh,” says a clearly emotional DeGeneres, discussing her concerns about the April 30, 1997 episode of Ellen—the infamous “Puppy Episode.” “Maybe they wouldn’t like me if they knew that I was gay.”

At the time, the coming-out of a lead character on a major prime time series—especially linked to the coming-out of the actress playing her—was unheard of. And while the episode garnered blockbuster ratings and critical acclaim, advertisers freaked out. JCPenney, which recently made DeGeneres its spokesperson and has produced gay-friendly marketing, refused to buy commercial time during the episode. And right-wing pundits loved using DeGeneres as their favorite human piñata:  Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson  called her “Ellen Degenerate.”

After “The Puppy Episode,”Ellen began to flounder and was canceled in 1998, a year after Ellen came out.

Now, of course, Ellen is America’s sweetheart, gays are all over the small screen and Falwell’s roasting in Hades. Funny how times have changed, huh?

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  • 1equalityUSA

    My spouse and I had a party that night. I was a huge deal. It doesn’t seem like such a huge deal today, but it really was and very much appreciated. I appreciate her being authentic and refusing to lie about her identity in order to blend in. It took courage to be real. Liars and closeted people are too fearful to come out and face the hate that the Catholics, NOM, hocus-pocus-focus on the family, 1000 moms, and anybody else with an uninformed opinion about our immutable trait has to say about our authentic lives.

  • jason

    I think Ellen traded on the “I’m a lesbian” notion to make money. It’s also interesting that American TV allowed this coming out for a woman and not a man, despite the fact that homosexual men have traditionally suffered more at the hands of the legal system than homosexual women.

    There is really nothing worth celebrating about Ellen unless you’re into celebrating very rich women who exploited double standards that discriminate against homosexual men.

  • pedro

    @jason: Jason, you need help…Don’t blame Ellen because gay men in show business are cowards…It was no smooth sailing for her, she lost most of her viewership, her show was cancelled not long after and that deceased pig Jerry Falwell attacked her non-stop, calling her Ellen Degenerate. She is a freaking pioneer and I salute her. I was eight years old at the time, but very aware of my own sexuality and remember watching it with my mother, who only watched it because Oprah was going to be on.

  • Larkin

    Without Ellen, there’d have been no Will&Grace. Ellen put everything on the line with her choice to come out. It also cost her a lot.

  • David Ehrenstein

    @pedro: Jason hates women — especially lesbians. He litters all manner of chatrooms with his loathing.

  • jason


    She suffered? Cry me a river. Ellen has made millions from the notion of being a lesbian. I don’t think she’s suffering in her mega-mansions, sweetie.

  • Dean Lowry

    @Jason: Pedro’s right – she is a pioneer and had the ovaries to come out at the expense of much of her viewership. Jesus, it was the effing 90s and incredibly risky to be out as a celeb. Since when does being wealthy automatically negate personal suffering? I have no doubt that she undertook immense soul searching and had to summon equally immense courage to come out on national television. You’re being bumped to coach for your sass, sweetie.

    xoxo Captain Dean

    PS: The Hitch on Falwell:

    “No, I don’t believe in hell, but it’s a pity there isn’t one for him to burn in.”

  • jason

    Dean Lowry,

    It’s not risky for a woman to come out. However, it is still risky for a man to come out.

    In any case, what exactly do you mean by “risky”? You mean risky as in “you will lose viewers and not make the milliions you so desire to have”? If taking a risk means putting principles before cash, I’d do it. A lot of these Hollywood types won’t because they’re simply in it to make money.

    Put it this way: Ellen isn’t in the Hollywood business because she feels the charitable desire to grace us with her presence. She’s in it to make money, honey.

  • jason

    Put it this way: there was no financial risk in Ellen coming out. She was going to get gigs even after Ellen finished. That’s because she was ordained to be the darling of Gay Inc, thus guaranteeing her an income for years to come. I would say that coming out for Ellen was definitely a financial guarantee, not a risk.

    With men, however, there still is a risk. Openly gay men are not so easily embraced by the mainstream media or by Gay Inc. When a man comes out, the media usually avoids him. Gay Inc usually drops him like a hot spud.

    The bias works against men, not women.

  • Dean Lowry

    @Jason: Whoa! It isn’t risky for women to come out? A bold statement – I think a lot of lesbians would beg to differ. (Especially my copilot’s fiancee!) Moreover, I don’t see how you could really justify such a claim. (By risky, I guess I mean the prospect of alienating friends, colleagues, or other people who know you.)

    I get that it’s different for us and, frankly, that most heteros have an easier time imagining two women getting it on (I wonder why…) and are predictably less hostile to lesbians, but it really depends on the person/situation and you can’t really make a blanket statement that it’s necessarily easier for women. I had a relatively easy time coming out as a gay man, and I know plenty of lesbians who had it far worse.

    Also, I don’t think any of us are in a position to know why Ellen is in the business. Honestly, it’s enough for me that she likes it, is really funny/talented, and uses her position to draw attention to some important issues.

    xoxo Dean

  • 1equalityUSA

    Ellen went through a very dark period after having risked coming out. It wasn’t easy. She has a positive way about her that is very appealing; not a mean bone in her body. I appreciate having her represent LGBT to parts of the Nation that may have unpleasant preconceived notions about what our community is. She’s harmless and funny and represents lesbians in a way that even the haters have to evaluate their own prejudices. I rarely watch T.V. these days, but from bit and bobs that I’ve come across, she seems like a good egg.

  • James

    @Dean Lowry,

    I agree with you one hundred percent. Regardless of Ellen’s reasons for coming out, the point is that she did it. It was a move forward for the Gay/Lesbian community as a whole. She is a public voice where we’ve needed one and didn’t have one before. We all need to stop focusing on the negative and start focusing on all the positive that is going on for us. While we might not have everything that we want and or need right now we still have a lot more to be happy about than we did 20 years ago.

  • Dean Lowry

    Dear James,

    I just snagged a spot for you in first class on the Clipper Majestic. Welcome aboard!

    xoxo Dean

  • Christopher SFO

    Jason: Your words are misogynistic, plain and simple. To deny that Ellen is a pioneer is just foolish. Look at any gay rights timeline and you’ll see Ellen’s “Puppy Episode” listed. Quit it with the bitterness – our lesbian sisters could use more of our support. Got that, sweetie???

  • Ty

    People like @jason: are skipping to the end of the story and forgetting all those years in between where nobody would hire Ellen, she was demonized and the moral majority had a field day with her. People forget that her sitcom lasted barely one more year after the coming out episode because viewers deserted her. Just because Ellen’s career has had vindication doesn’t mean she didn’t have it very hard for a few years. And if it is so much easier for women to come out, why are there still high-profile closeted lesbians in Hollywood? Yes, you’ve got Ellen, Rosie (and if you want to see someone whose career is in ruins, look no further) and Melissa Etheridge, but why are you forgetting that us guys also have Neil Patrick Harris, Guillermo Diaz and several other wonder actors who are still doing well after coming out.

    Ellen was a brave person and she couldn’t lie to the world anymore and she subjected herself to a litmus test, and everyone who was coming out and/or coming to terms with themselves in the mid-late 1990s has a soft spot for the woman. She provided gay visibility at a time where it wasn’t as common as it is now. I may not watch her talk show every day but I have always been a fan of the woman and am glad that she ultimately overcame the bigotry and closed doors she first encountered when she first told the world she was gay.

  • David Ehrenstein

    @Ty: Quite true. But the best thing of all is that while Ellen “lost” her sitcom (and I hope I’m not the only one to rememebr the short-lived “Ellen Show” that came afterwards) her current talk show exhibits her skills far better than any sitcom could. Ellen is in a very American tradition of low-key casula comedy. There’s nothing “edgey” about her — except for the fact that she’s a lesbian. Ad her warmth and conviviality had completely taken the “edge” off of that.

  • Gauthier

    Regardless of what went down before she got her really big break on her talkshow, I’m not sure I’m happy with the way she presents herself on tv… It’s just, she is always indulging her female viewers with male hotness, such as that sleazeball Mario Lopez in his undies, and other celebrity dudes, and she is never overtly sexual or sexualizing of women (not that she SHOULD, but it’s just not there, she seems completely asexual around women… She didn’t even kiss her wife that time she came on the show), with which I mean, she seems to use men as en excuse to come off as harmless and unthreatening so people won’t demonize her for her sexuality.. But I’m afraid this has a very averse effect that encourages certain apocryphal notions such as lesbians being confused women who just need the right men to ‘set them straight’ and other innocuous stereotypes. I don’t know if I buy this whole act. I’m not saying she’s evil or exploiting her situation, I’m just doubtful of her genuineness.

  • axon

    Ellen did a great thing coming out. She didn’t know at the time if she would ever be welcome back into the industry again, as far as she knew she could well have ended up friendless and ostracized for ever. It did cost her, but common sense finally prevailed. As I am sure it will in the big picture as well.

    I don’t watch every show, but it seems to be true she is not overtly sexual in any way on camera – but isn’t that true for most talk show hosts and hostesses? As public figures, they don’t want to be too personal with lovers on the set, which would make the audience feel excluded. If their wives or husbands come to visit a taping, they don’t start with a passionate kiss, they just hug.

  • HM

    Have we gotten THAT apathetic about our growing comfort as out and accepted members of society that we can now snidely dismiss one of the watermark moments in that progress?

    Take a rising career in Hollywood (not the easiest venue to make a splash), a bright future and a steady, generous income stream….and put it all on the line because you’re tired of living a lie…..many, MANY before her didn’t have the courage to do that, and lived as glamourous, sad frauds. On top of all that, add shithooks like Falwell and Robertson and their putrid flocks, all ready to pounce on you….’Ellen Degenerate’…..they crucified that woman. And her loudest defender was her Mom, which served to inspire other parents to embrace and love their gay kids.

    Fifteen years later she’s one of the most powerful women in the media, and she has transformed attitudes in the same living rooms that used to welcome Falwell and Robertson. There is no ‘yeah, but’… in this.

    It was a treasured moment, thanks to a treasure.

  • NoelG

    @jason: Wow. That’s a stupid opinion. She lost her television show and her career as a comedian tanked for years and years. She was in a position to act and she did. If no gay men came out before her, that’s not her fault.

  • NoelG

    @jason: Dude, none of her success that’s she’s enjoying now happened until the country progressed to the point where homosexuality was more widely accepted, a development she played a role in. But until that happened for years it looked her career was mostly over. There were no “millions”. She was just that gay comic who came out and lost her television show.

  • Ty

    @NoelG: @NoelG:

    Thank you. So true. People keep looking at the end of the story and forgetting the middle. Ellen pretty much had to start from the ground up after her sitcom was canceled. She deserves the success she’s gotten, and I think its rather misogynistic to go “well she’s a woman, people like lesbians”. Oh really? Then why can’t Rosie O’Donnell catch a break? If you’re canceled the Oprah Winfrey Network, your show must’ve been doing really bad. The difference is, Ellen is a cheerful warm presence, people of all walks of life like her. You have conservative Republicans who have rethought their opinion on homosexuality because of her. OTOH Rosie is someone who people either love or hate, and more people fall into the latter category.

    I agree that society finds lesbians more “appealing” than they do two men in bed, but regardless, its hardly like lesbians have everything handed to them and things are so much easier… if that was the case, then why aren’t Queen Latifah and Jodie Foster all the way out of the closet? There is still a stigma to lesbians in Hollywood and while many people know that they are gay in their private life, there’s still enough bigotry out there who would suddenly stop watching their movies if they just came on out and publicized it. Yes, we can say the same thing about Anderson Cooper and Jim Parsons (who always brings his partner everywhere with him), but still, it just proves that there is still some homophobia out there towards lesbians, although Jason makes it out like Jodie and Latifah are out and that Rosie is as beloved as Ellen is when we all know she isn’t.

  • Jabaroo

    @NoelG: That’s exactly how I feel. It was 1997 not 2012.

  • Alex Sarmiento

    I’m glad that Ellen rebuilt her career after her sitcom got cancelled. Having said that, I haven’t watched her talk show once since it began nine years ago. It just doesn’t appeal to me at all.

  • jason

    Have you ever thought that Ellen’s sitcom tanked because it was crap? Don’t assume that it’s just the big bad public turning on the gay.

    As for her current talk show, she has had homophobes on. She’s been enabling the career of known homophobes.

  • PTBoat

    Well, Jason, the show was better than most of the crap on TV at the time. The ratings did go down after the coming out episode. The show was accused of making lines were a bit preachy, but the show would probably have survived if the climate were different. People were hypersensitive to the mention of gay people, so any continued story line that included her sexual orientation was considered to be a preachy story line.

    I remember that my husband and I were on the floor with laughter, but had tears streaming down our faces at the same time during this episode. The toaster oven line is still, unfortunately, relevant.

  • PTBoat

    @jason: If all men would come out, the risk would be negated. One wonders at what age you came out, Jason. Did you come out as soon as you knew, in high school, perhaps, so that there would be some solidarity with the other gay boys? Did you wait and play straight so that you could partake of the rewards of perceived heterosexuality?

    Ellen’s later success is not at the expense of gay men. It is something that she earned. Certainly society holds a double standard for gay men and women, but the steps that she made have made it easier for gay men to walk in this world and demand to be treated equally. The whims of society are hard to explain, but it takes pioneers of any ilk to change them.

  • Ty

    @jason: You act like only good tv shows score well. If that’s the case then why is Two And A Half Men still on the air?

    IMO, anyone who will go on her talk show can’t be too big of a bigot. You’ll never see Michelle Bachmann or Kirk Cameron appearing on her show.

  • Shannon1981

    @pedro: Don’t listen to jason. He hates all women, even gay ones.

  • Shannon1981

    The only thing I don’t like about Ellen’s show is her pandering to hetero women. The Christmas episode last year with the “hunky santas” was fucking ridiculous. Anyone with a brain knows that that those were not the kind of tight thighs she was dreaming of. As a gay woman, I’d like to see her tailor at least one episode to, well, gay women. Just because she has a hot wife to go home to doesn’t mean we all do.

  • Shannon1981

    @Ty: See corrective rape of lesbians for Exhibit A of how easy we have it…

    A radio jock just insinuated that a father of a gay daughter have his friends “screw her straight.”

    We also face the same legal inequalities gay men do, and have straight men constantly saying we need a good dicking, that they’d fuck us straight, and even gay men like jason here all but saying our sexuality doesn’t exist.

    Sure, lesbians have it sooooo much easier.

    Not sure what side your comment is on, apologies if I misinterpreted.

  • baptiste

    @jason: I believe she made too much of it at the time and it did dissuade me from watching her for awhile, as she seemed like a friend that wanted to just drone on about something I was simply willing to acknowledge without reservation or condition. She did what she thought was right but turned of a lot of people at the time.

Comments are closed.