Most of us can remember exactly where we were 25 years ago when we saw Ellen DeGeneres on the Time magazine cover with the attention-grabbing title "Yep, I'm Gay." Or more likely, while watching her sitcom Ellen, when she announced over an airport loudspeaker that she was gay. Both were great stories for us -- but controversial at the time for society.
Ellen's story is perhaps one of the most storied in LGBTQ+ history. And how times have changed, and that's partly because of Ellen, who led the way so that we wouldn't have to be stunned at a magazine cover that blared the word "gay."
Our generation remembers what happened during those spring days in 1997, but for those who weren't of age at that time, we can tell you Ellen's coming-out was a tectonic pop-culture event. It changed most of our lives.
It was also a precarious time, particularly for Ellen. She paid the consequences for being honest. Her hit sitcom, Ellen, took a nosedive in the ratings the season after her own and her character Ellen Morgan's revelations. ABC eventually canceled the series.
When Ellen said, "Yep, I'm gay," that bold move temporarily cost her a well-paying job and her position as a Tinseltown A-lister, and it upended and basically shut down her life. It was a stinging rebuke to Ellen, who just wanted to live her truth.
However, little did we know that she would eventually succeed, in ways neither she -- nor us -- ever dreamed. To say that she is now one of the most prominent and consequential LGBTQ+ figures in the world would not be an overstatement.
After a few years, she became the host of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, a daily talk show that premiered September 8, 2003, at NBC Studios. DeGeneres moved her show to the Warner Bros. lot in the fall of 2008, but stage 1 at NBC was dedicated to DeGeneres November 12, 2015, in celebration of her landmark 2,000th show.
In May 2021, DeGeneres announced she would be ending her talk show the following year after an impressive 3,300+ episodes and 64 Daytime Emmy Awards. She won more Emmys than Oprah.
This marks the last week of the show, which was a thunderbolt in daytime talk and a game changer for LGBTQ+ acceptance.
(Photo: Out comedian Kate McKinnon, left, and DeGeneres)
It didn't all go flawlessly, though. She hit a big bump on the road during the pandemic, most notably with accusations of a toxic workplace. She apologized profusely, yet many slammed her, particularly some from our community. But we all make mistakes, and if you're in the public eye, like Ellen, they get amplified.
In the end, Ellen Morgan became Ellen DeGeneres, who ended up talking about herself and her life as a lesbian each day. That seems vitally important and does not diminish the charges against her, but was it all performance art on her part? Was she really that nice? Or was she mean? Was it all an act? Not if you consider that she never shied away from speaking openly and honestly about her sexuality.
That openness opened the door to more acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in middle America, who were her main audience, and to same-sex marriage since Ellen talked so openly and honestly for years about her wife, Portia de Rossi. America got a lesson in how normal being gay was.
On one of her last shows, the comedian Jerrod Carmichael credited Ellen with helping to prompt his coming out, again one of what is surely an infinite number that were inspired by Ellen. He summed it up this way: "I have so much to say to you. You faced coming out at a time when it was impossible, there was no precedent. You faced a lot. It's no small thing, It's really, really huge."
Ellen was 39 in 1997, and during that television season there were a few gay characters on television, including on other network shows. There was no one else with the magnitude of Ellen DeGeneres. She was the out star of her own sitcom. That was huge to all of us in the LGBTQ+ community and to Ellen.
"I remember a lot of different emotions," she tells The Advocate. "I remember once I made the decision to come out, I knew that it was the right choice. I just remember having no fear about it. I had been living with so much trepidation that someone was going to ask me about my sexuality in an interview, or that someone would out me. And I look back at that and those opinions of myself, and I just think it was all so silly."
While the rest of us mostly held our breaths for Ellen and her future at the time, she was more upbeat. "It was an exciting time. I remember that we were all sitting around trying to figure out how to write the coming-out show for Ellen Morgan. We went through four different versions of the script, and we were keeping the script very closely held. We didn't copy or print anything. We were determined to make it a big surprise, and it was."
After the show aired, first on the east coast, Ellen started to be overwhelmed with reactions from friends and family. "I heard from so many people saying that they heard people cheering around them and that restaurants were closing and having parties and celebrating. It was explosive. It was such an exciting time, and looking back in hindsight, I can see what a big deal it really was," she says.
What was harder to do for her, say goodbye to Ellen Morgan in 1998 or Ellen DeGeneres the talk show host in 2022?
"Ellen Morgan wasn't my choice, so that was harder," she began. "The season after the coming-out episode, ABC decided not to advertise around it because I and the character were so controversial at the time. Which is so weird, because now the more controversial a show is, the more that it is hyped. So obviously, the ratings took a hit, because there was no advertising for it, and a lot of people didn't realize there was another season."
She added, "I thought that season was really special. It depicted how Ellen was moving forward in her life by being an out woman, and it was really set in what the reality was at the time. For example, you had the situation where her boss wasn't so accepting and didn't want her babysitting his children anymore."
But the troubles and discomfort about Ellen Morgan went beyond the character. "What seems really ridiculous now is that the show came with a parental guidance warning. I think the worst thing Ellen Morgan did was hold hands with another woman, so having that warning at the top of the show was just over the top," recalls DeGeneres. "It was a real shame that the show was canceled because it could have gone on in a positive way, showing that Ellen Morgan could be successful in work and a relationship. But the good thing about the show being canceled is that instead of being on TV once a week, I went on to being on TV every day."
And after ABC dumped Ellen Morgan, ironically, NBC premiered Will & Grace in September of 1998, with a straight man playing the gay lead, and promoted it heavily. The show became a hit, and because of Ellen's courageous move, other shows began to include prominent gay characters giving way to where we are today with shows like Work in Progress and The L Word: Generation Q, which have LGBTQ+ characters and storylines that no one blinks an eye at.
However, for Ellen, the return to television was not easy. It took her a few years to be on TV every day, and for three years after Ellen was canceled and after the real-life Ellen came out, she was persona non grata in Hollywood.
"No one was hiring me for those years, and when the offer to do a talk show popped up, I wasn't immediately thrilled about doing a talk show, to be honest. Yet I jumped at the opportunity because I wanted to work," DeGeneres explains.
In the beginning, 19 years ago, no one wanted to broadcast a talk show that was hosted by a lesbian. "I think we only had about three affiliates that picked it up. A lot of decision-makers around the country weren't wild about me, out Ellen, being on their stations," she points out. "As a matter of fact, the distributors of the show were really trying to sell the Sharon Osbourne show too, so they tried to sell us as a package deal. However, I was the side dish of coleslaw to Sharon's main dish of barbeque chicken. Then, once my show aired, it started to become popular, which surprised everyone, and as the show took off it gave me more of an opportunity to be myself."
DeGeneres explains that when the show started, there were strict conditions for her to follow. "I couldn't talk about Portia. I couldn't say the word 'we' since that would imply there was someone special in my life. They told me to dress a certain way -- no jeans, for example. I guess jeans were considered gay? Oh, and I couldn't say that word -- 'gay.' I wasn't happy about it, so if the situation changed with the show, I knew I'd have some power to change the show."
Those rules did change quickly when DeGeneres became a national daytime hit, and she started to implement her own rules, namely talking about Portia. She really normalized being gay and being in a same-sex relationship. It was stealth activism with an eye out for shifting cultural sentiment.
"What's wonderful about her, as a cultural figure, is that it worked so wonderfully alongside political activism," says Jessica Halem, a comedian and gay rights activist. "So there's political activism and cultural change going on at the same time."
"I take an immense amount of pride about that," DeGeneres says. "I was lucky enough to have a platform. I wasn't necessarily celebrated as a celebrity. In other words, I was just being my honest and authentic self. I would refer to Portia every day as 'my wife' just like a man would do, and a lot of people became comfortable hearing that over time, and it ended up not being such a big deal. I feel great that I was able to do something that made a huge difference. I don't take that for granted."
DeGeneres also made it a point over the years to bring on LGBTQ+ guests and help raise awareness of them. "Any time I heard or read about someone who was queer and who was brave enough to come out, I booked them on the show. Not only did I want to talk to them, but I wanted my audience to meet them, and the more visible they were, the better message it sent to people, particularly those who are struggling to come out and looking for examples that might help encourage them."
Finally, what's next for DeGeneres? "First, I'm going to take it easy for a while and enjoy my temporary retirement, and then I'll let the creative juices flow at some point and see where it takes me, hopefully, someplace better and special," she says. "I didn't want to do a talk show at the beginning and look what happened, so who knows?"