Twenty years ago, Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out on television and in real life was an act of pure subversion. Her character on her sitcom, Ellen Morgan, became the first gay or lesbian lead character in the history of television, and DeGeneres subsequently made television appearances discussing her reasons for the bold statement.
In a world where there are hundreds of queer characters on television, DeGeneres’s coming out 20 years ago on April 30 in her sitcom's “Puppy Episode” may not seem like a big deal, but it was a watershed moment for pop culture, and every LGBT person since has benefited in some small way from her bravery.
While DeGeneres set the bar for coming out, she has never shied away, in her own gently humorous way, from challenging opponents of LGBT and women's rights. Here are 20 times since DeGeneres came out that she’s been an outspoken activist.
20. DeGeneres Takes Down Bic's Gendered Pen
DeGeneres isn’t as well known for challenging gender disparities as much as she is known for fighting for LGBT rights, but she’s always been an outspoken proponent for women. With her usual gentle yet biting humor, DeGeneres eviscerated Bic for designing the Pen for Her. “I was reading the back of the package, well, I had a man read the back of the package to me…” DeGeneres joked. She explained that Bic’s selling point was that the pen was “designed to fit a woman’s hand.”
“What does that mean? When we’re taking down dictation from our bosses, we’ll feel comfortable and forget we’re not getting paid as much?” Ellen queried.
19. DeGeneres Calls for Rating Change for Bully Documentary
When the MPAA gave the important documentary Bully an R rating rather than PG-13, Katy Butler, a Michigan high school student, launched a petition to lower the rating so that the target audience of teens could see the film. DeGeneres threw her support behind Butler and the rating change.
“It’s an important movie for everyone to see, especially kids,” DeGeneres said to an audience that included Butler. “There’s some language in the movie. It’s mature but not gratuitous. It’s in the movie because it’s part of the real story of bullying and it’s real language that bullies are using.”
Pressure on the rating's board worked, and the film’s rating was lowered.
“The lessons that the kids learn from this movie are more important than any words they might hear, and they’re words they are already using anyway,” DeGeneres said at the time.
18. DeGeneres Tells Ellen Page She's "Proud of Her" for Coming Out
A few months after actress Ellen Page came out at a Human Rights Campaign event for LGBT youth, DeGeneres, someone who can closely relate to the terror of coming out in the public eye, told her on the show, “I’m proud of you for coming out.”
The then-27-year-old star of Juno, Inception, and the X-Men films spoke candidly about the fear and shame she carried with her from being closeted. She told DeGeneres that she was a much happier person for coming out and added, “I was grateful to have that moment [her HRC speech] and grateful to you because you did it in a time that was much harder and much scarier.”
17. DeGeneres Questions Caitlyn Jenner About Her Anti–Marriage Equality Stance
A Republican and a supporter of Donald Trump, Caitlyn Jenner’s support of marriage equality appeared tepid to DeGeneres, who questioned Jenner about her stance in the fall of 2015. DeGeneres prodded Jenner by implying the former athlete was still not on board with full equality, while Jenner countered, “I don’t want to stand in front of somebody’s happiness.” But DeGeneres, who also appeared on Howard Stern's show to express her disbelief that a woman in the LGBT community might not be fully on board, pressed Jenner, saying, “Marriage is marriage and equality is equality.”
16. DeGeneres Confronts One Million Moms After They Denounce Her as JCPenney Spokesperson
When JCPenney named DeGeneres as its spokesperson in 2012, the conservative group One Million Moms (or 40,000 moms as DeGeneres pointed out) called for a boycott of the retail company. DeGeneres, who typically doesn’t listen to naysayers, kicked off her show with a message to One Million Moms explaining that the organization wanted her fired from the job because she’s gay and because they believe in traditional values. Coupled with her gentle humor, DeGeneres dismantled the group’s argument before naming her own “traditional values,” like love, acceptance, and equality.
15. DeGeneres Praises Lesbian Teen Who Fought for the Right to Take Her Girlfriend to Prom
When Mississippi teen Constance McMillen planned to take her girlfriend to prom and to wear a tux, officials at her school canceled the dance, making her a target of furious classmates. (Officials went on to invite McMillen to what amounted to a fake prom and send most other students to another event.) DeGeneres sent a message of support to McMillen on a previous show, but for McMillen's visit to the Ellen show, DeGeneres praised her for being "brave" and awarded the honor student with $30,000 toward her college education.
"It's always easy to be quiet, especially when you know somebody might tell you 'no' or it's going to cause a scene," DeGeneres told McMillen."I admire you so much. When I was your age I never would have had the strength to do what you are doing."
14. DeGeneres and Pharrell Discuss Acceptance in Light of Hidden Figures Singer Kim Burrell's Homophobic Remarks
Gospel singer Kim Burrell, who sang the Oscar-nominated song from Hidden Figures, “I See a Victory,” was slated to appear on the Ellen show when she delivered a fiery sermon at a church calling LGBT people “perverted.” DeGeneres canceled the singer’s appearance but then spoke about the decision on her show with Pharrell, who performs the song with Burrell. While DeGeneres admitted she couldn’t allow someone with such disdain for LGBT people to appear on the show, she and Pharrell spoke of a continuing need for love and empathy, even when it comes to people like Burrell.
13. A Gay Iraqi Couple Share Their Epic Love Story with DeGeneres
It was only a week after Trump’s inauguration when DeGeneres invited a gay Iraqi couple to her show to share their story of love under insurmountable odds. The men, one a translator and one a soldier, met and fell in love 12 years ago in Iraq during wartime. Forced to hide their love because it was forbidden under Iraqi law, they endured a four-year separation but finally sought asylum and moved to Seattle. The men are happily married now, but their story is a cautionary tale for a time when the United States is subjected to Trump’s attempted travel bana.
12. DeGeneres Speaks Out Against Mississippi's Hateful Anti-LGBT Law
Last April, when Mississippi’s Gov. Phil Bryan signed into law the hateful anti-LGBT House Bill 1523, which would allow businesses, individuals, and religiously affiliated organizations to deny service to LGBT people, single mothers, and others who somehow offend an individual's "sincerely held religious belief,” DeGeneres spoke up. “I’m not a political person. I’m really not,” she said. “But this is not politics. This is human rights.”
DeGeneres ended her appeal on a note of strength that was a challenge to Bryant. “I was fired for being gay and I know what it feels like. I lost everything. Look at me now. I could buy that governor’s mansion, flip it and make a $7 million profit.” The law has been blocked by courts from going into effect, but the state is appealing.
11. DeGeneres Trashes Trump's Travel Ban with a Clever Finding Dory Allegory
As the star of Pixar’s insanely popular Finding Dory, DeGeneres offered particularly searing insight into Trump’s travel bans and planned border wall, using the animated film as an allegory to counter the hateful measure.
Using animation from the film, DeGeneres points out that when Dory and her friends arrive in America they’re separated by a massive wall they must get around in order to be with each other.
“You won't believe it, but that wall has almost no effect on keeping them out," DeGeneres wryly explained as the audience went wild with applause.
10. DeGeneres Challenges John McCain on His Marriage Equality Stance
During the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Republican candidate John McCain strongly opposed marriage equality, and DeGeneres did not allow him to appear on her show without challenging him.
Regarding marriage, McCain told DeGeneres that he believed couples should be allowed contractual agreements in terms of insurance, etc., but he added, “I just believe in the unique status of marriage between man and woman, and I know that we have a respectful disagreement on that issue.”
After a thoughtful pause, DeGeneres discussed changes throughout the centuries including voting rights for people of color and women, which came after hard-fought battles. “There’s this old way of thinking that we are not the same,” DeGeneres said. “We are all the same people, all of us. You’re no different than I am. Our love is the same.”
9. DeGeneres Thanks Outgoing President Obama for His "Courage"
Just as Trump was being inaugurated, DeGeneres took a moment on her show to pay tribute to the Obamas, tearing up as she thanked President Barack Obama for pushing rights for LGBT people forward.
“I want to personally thank him for changing my life. I am a legally married woman because of him, and so is my wife,” Ellen said. “His courage and compassion created equality for everyone. He moved us forward and made more happen in the past eight years than I ever dreamed possible. I love him. I love Michelle.”
8. DeGeneres Comments on a Teen Being Murdered for Asking a Male Classmate to Be His Valentine
Back in 2008, when a 15-year-old gay teen was murdered in California by the boy in school that he liked, DeGeneres tearfully spoke about acceptance on her show. The teen, Larry King, had asked a boy to be his valentine, and that boy then killed him.
"A boy has been killed and a number of lives have been ruined, and somewhere along the line, the killer Brandon [McInerney] got the message that it’s so threatening and so awful and so horrific that Larry would want to be his valentine that killing Larry seemed to be the right thing to do," DeGeneres said. "When the message out there is so horrible that to be gay you can get killed for it, we need to change the message."
She added, “Larry was not a second-class citizen, I am not a second-class citizen; it is OK if you're gay."
7. DeGeneres Praises Prop. 8 Protesters
Proposition 8, the measure that banned same-sex marriage in California, had just been approved by voters on the night of Obama’s election in 2008, and people across California took to the streets for days in protest. DeGeneres, who married Portia de Rossi during a five-month window between June of 2008 and November when same-sex marriage was legal in the state, felt a particular blow, and she addressed it on her show, praising the protesters standing up for their rights and proclaiming that she wished she could be out there with them rather than working.
6. DeGeneres Calls for an End to Bullying Amid Rash of Teen Suicides
Following a rash of LGBT teen suicides, DeGeneres called for an end to the bullying that was pushing kids to kill themselves. She mentioned Tyler Clementi, the gay college student who committed suicide after his roommate spied on him on the internet.
"I am devastated over the death of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi," DeGeneres said. "He was outed as being gay on the internet and he killed himself."
DeGeneres also mentioned three other unnecessary deaths of LGBT teens that occurred in September of 2010. "Something must be done," she said. "This needs to be a wake-up call to everyone that teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in this country, and the death rate is climbing. We have an obligation to change this."
5. DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell Discuss Being "Lebanese" on TV
During the lead-up in 1997 to DeGeneres coming out on her sitcom and in life, she teased the event on her show and in various interviews. Nothing was funnier or more subversive than DeGeneres appearing with Rosie O'Donnell on Rosie's talk show to hint at the coming-out event. O'Donnell, who was not out at the time, asked DeGeneres to comment on rumors that big news was coming.
"We do find out that the character is Lebanese," DeGeneres deadpanned. "There have been clues. You've seen her eating baba ganoush if you've watched the show at all, and hummus. ... She's a big, big fan of Casey Kasem and Kathy Najimy [who are Lebanese]."
“I’m a big fan of Casey Kasem,” O’Donnell replied. “Maybe I’m Lebanese," and the two went back and forth about being Lebanese for some time. While DeGeneres had not yet officially come out and O'Donnell would not come out until 2002, the idea that there were two queer women all but saying the word "lesbian" on daytime television in 1997 was remarkable in a way that can't be appreciated with all of the strides that have been made for visibility since.
4. President Obama Awards DeGeneres With the Presidential Medal of Freedom
President Obama bestowed DeGeneres with the Medal of Freedom for her bravery in coming out and for remaining an outspoken role model. The clip speaks for itself.
3. DeGeneres Features Heroic Survivor of the Pulse Massacre
Following the devastating attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando last June, DeGeneres featured a young man who survived the attack. His story is uplifting and impossible to comprehend.
2. DeGeneres and Anne Heche Speak Candidly About Coming Out With Oprah
In conjunction with DeGeneres's coming-out episode, she and her then-partner, Anne Heche, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and shared the story of their love affair. It was a bold, unprecedented move that made both women vulnerable.
1. DeGeneres Hosts the Emmy Awards in the Wake of 9/11
In the wake of 9/11, the Emmy Awards cermony was postponed twice as Hollywood was unsure of how to respond publicly to the devastation. In a time of great upheaval, after her original sitcom was canceled, and just as a second, short-lived show was about to air, DeGeneres put the country at ease. While her monologue for the Emmy Awards began gently enough, she kicked it into full gear when she remarked, “What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?”