In April 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet twice: first in real life, with a now famous Time magazine cover that declared, simply, “Yep, I’m Gay.” Then, weeks later, she came out in character on her sitcom, “Ellen.” In a new interview, she reflects on the 20th anniversary of those life-changing moments.
It’s hard to remember now what a seismic shift DeGeneres’ coming out represented back then. There were out celebrities, of course, but few were major stars, and fewer came out well after they were already famous. Plus, no prime-time network show had ever had an out lead. When the “Ellen” writers pitched the story idea to Disney-ABC’s then-CEO Michael Eisner, he suggested they have Degeneres’ character adopt a puppy instead.
According to DeGeneres, coming out was an entirely personal decision. Neither she nor the show needed the headlines.
“I was doing just fine,” DeGeneres told the Associated Press. “The show was a success, my career was a success and there was no real reason for me to do it other than I did some work on myself, some deep soul-searching, and realized I was really carrying around a lot of shame.”
DeGeneres’ personal and fictional comings out shattered barriers, but in so doing, drew an enormous amount of hatred from a homophobic public that, 20 years ago, was far less accustomed to gay celebrities and mainstream characters.
The hatred affected more involved than DeGeneres alone. Oprah Winfrey, who played DeGeneres’ therapist on the show, received “the worst hate mail of my career.” Laura Dern, who played Degeneres’ love interest, wouldn’t get acting work for a year after the episode aired.
“To know that Laura Dern was punished for it just because she played my love interest in that show is crazy,” DeGeneres told the AP. “I mean, she's a brilliant actress, she's heterosexual and yet she was punished.”
“That's why a lot of people don't come out,” DeGeneres added. “Because there's a very loud and clear message … that a lot of people don't understand it (being gay), and because they don't understand it they fear, and because they fear it they hate it. But I had no idea the amount of hate. I had no idea that there would be death threats or a bomb scare. It was a really scary time.”
DeGeneres and her current, wildly popular, eponymous talk show are beloved, but after she came out, her life got worse before it got better. Following the coming out and the sitcom’s cancellation a year later, DeGeneres sank into a deep, long depression. But she acknowledges she couldn’t have achieved her current success without going through that difficult, but necessary, struggle:
“For me to crawl out of that and to accomplish what I've accomplished with the show and with my brand and with my production company, and to succeed after all that … (It) makes me realize that no matter how dark something gets, and no matter how bad something gets, that there's always a possibility of good coming from it."