Nearly 20 years later, Ellen DeGeneres reflects on her groundbreaking decision to publicly come out
Ellen DeGeneres courageously came out as a lesbian in 1997 during an episode of her show Ellen. Courageous, because at the time, there weren’t many openly gay characters on television, and certainly not a main character on a prime time TV show. Most gay celebrities just weren’t admitting they were gay — that is until Ellen opened the door for the entire Hollywood community, and opened the door for many members of the gay and lesbian community in general.
Shocking the world, Ellen’s character, Ellen (she was essentially playing a version of herself), admitted to her therapist that she was in love with another woman. Her therapist was played by a budding star named Oprah Winfrey. Just kidding about the budding star part — Oprah was already 11 years deep into her talk show by that point.
As a result of the episode, ABC quickly canceled “Ellen,” something Ellen was extremely fearful of happening. The coming out episode and the show’s cancellation was huge news. Like, headline news everywhere. Ellen gave three interviews following the episode — one, not surprisingly, to Oprah. Over 40 million people watched that episode — some were supportive and some were very much not supportive.
But now, 18 years later, Ellen reunited with Oprah for an episode of Oprah’s Master Class on OWN to discuss why she came out and what it was like for her at the time. Ellen told Oprah, “I didn’t think I would be coming out on a show ever,” and that she was inspired by a “hippy course” she took called Inner Dialogue of Your Subconscious Mind. “I wanted to know what the inner dialogue of my subconscious mind was, and it was scary and crazy,” she said. “What came out of listening to what I had been saying to myself is, ‘Would I still be famous? Would they still love me if they knew I was gay?’ And my fear was, ‘No, they wouldn’t.’”
Ellen said she felt it was necessary for her and her character to come out “because it was OK, and people needed to hear that.” She was right. People absolutely needed to hear it, and that’s exactly why her coming out created such a storm of opinions. Whatever the opinion was, people were talking, and that was important.
Ellen explained that every time she rehearsed the scene where she announced “I am gay,” she cried. Because “to say that sentence out loud in front of a whole bunch of people is scary as hell and emotional and empowering, which is why most people cry when they tell their parents or tell anybody,” she said.
“I am not fearless. I didn’t do it because I am fearless. I did it in spite of the fact that I was scared to death.”
The LGBTQA+ community has made unimaginable strides since the ’90s (even in the past year) — and Ellen was a pioneering force.
Check out an excerpt from Oprah’s Master Class:
(Image via ABC)