News Nostalgia: Let’s Talk About Ellen Coming Out

As time has progressed, more and more celebrities are getting comfortable “coming out” to the public. Just this year, Jodie Foster came out during the Golden Globes, during an acceptance speech for the Cecil B. Demille award after years of speculation. “If you had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you, too, would value privacy above all else,” said Jodie at the end of her speech.

While it’s not necessarily our business to know the sexual preferences of our celebrities, the celebrities who have chosen to come out have served as a huge support to children and teenagers who might be afraid, or even ashamed of the way they were born. The “It Gets Better” campaign, which launched in 2010, is just one of the most recent projects to help LGBT youth. But before YouTube, before Will and Grace, and before the super charming Chris Colfer, there was Ellen.

Ellen was the first openly gay woman to have her own sitcom. In a 1997 issue of Time Magazine, Ellen stated: “I always thought I could keep my personal life separate from my professional life… I mean, I really tried to figure out every way to avoid answering that question for as long as I could… Now, I feel completely 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.”

Ellen came out to her Mom, Betty DeGeneres, when she was 20. While Betty was supportive, and eventually became the the first non-gay spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign’s Coming Out Project, her father and his new wife were barely accommodating. After hearing the news, they asked that she move out of their house to avoid “influencing” their two younger children.

Between 1994 and 1998, she starred in her own show on ABC, called Ellen. Her character, Ellen Morgan, came out around the same time as she did, in an episode called “The Puppy Episode” which aired during the fourth season.

Ellen began negotiations with ABC to have her character come out in 1996.. When word got out, speculation began around the comedian’s own sexuality – and whether or not art would be imitating life.

After “The Puppy Episode” started production, a bunch of big names lobbied to be on the episode – including Oprah Winfrey, who played the therapist that Ellen came out to. LGBT group GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) launched a “Let Ellen Out!” campaign, which included an “Ellen Watch” website. The Human Rights Campaign sent out around 3,000 “Ellen Coming Out House Party” kits that included invitations, posters and an Ellen trivia game for when the episode aired. Obviously there was a lot of buzz – people knew that it’d be a historical moment of television.

Despite the buzz, the episode wasn’t a complete win. The show was severely threatened by advertisers and religious groups – and while the episode had tremendous ratings (42 million!) and was nominated for multiple awards, the show was cancelled after one more season.

Even before the episode taped, the studio received a bomb threat, and Ellen was followed by car to the studio on at least one occasion by a “suspicious man”. Oprah received hateful phone calls and letters based on her participation, and Ellen’s career took a decline – she was blacklisted in Hollywood.

Besides stand up, Ellen didn’t work for about three years, and was nearly broke. Eventually she recovered, by hosting the 2001 Emmy awards and hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live. She also had another sitcom called The Ellen Show, where her character was openly gay from the start. Also – nobody can forget that she was the voice of Dory in Finding Nemo.

And today? Ellen is one of Daytime TV’s top earners. Her talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, has been on air since 2003, and is extremely popular – after all, it won 25 Emmy’s in its first three years. After the overturn of the same-sex marriage ban in California, DeGeneres announced on a May 2008 show that she and actress Portia DeRossi were engaged – and they officially married just months later.

Do you remember when Ellen came out on her sitcom? Do you think that if “The Puppy Episode” aired today, it’d be as big of a deal?

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