Ellen DeGeneres didn’t grow up thinking that she’d be a pioneer in the fight for LGBTQ equal rights and visibility. But that’s exactly where she found herself in 1997 when she broke out of the professional closet she’d inhabited since becoming a standup comic.
Like most pioneers across time, Ellen brushed past the risks knowing full well that there was peril in stepping off the ledge. For Ellen that peril was the potential loss of everything she’d worked for, including her very popular TV sitcom that featured Ellen DeGeneres as Ellen Morgan.
When Ellen DeGeneres and her television character came out of the closet simultaneously, the media hurricane was a Category 5 and the backlash included hate mail, death threats, and ultimately the cancellation of her show. At the time of her Making Gay History interview in 2001, there was no guarantee that Ellen’s star would rise again—and far higher than it had in the 1990s—and that the honors showered on her would include the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
To learn more about Ellen and to view an excerpt of the famous 1997 coming out episode of her show, have a look at the links below.
Watch a clip of the “Ellen” sitcom’s 1997 coming out episode, which was called “The Puppy Episode,” here.
Here are just two of an avalanche of articles and columns about the coming out episode of “Ellen.” Read a May 1, 1997 New York Times editorial here. Read about the episode’s huge ratings here. And read one viewer’s reaction in a letter he wrote to the New York Times.
On the night that Ellen’s coming out episode aired on ABC, thousands of people gathered at viewing parties across the United States. Read about that story here.
A 1997 CNN article reported on Ellen DeGeneres’ upset over the parental advisory label that ABC applied to “Ellen” after the show’s main character, Ellen Morgan, came out.
Approximately one year after ABC aired “The Puppy Episode,” the network cancelled “Ellen.” Read about that in these two 1998 articles from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. A 2013 AV/TV Club roundtable discussed the significance of Ellen’s “coming out” episode and its impact.
In her Making Gay History interview, Ellen DeGeneres talks about her memories concerning Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998. For more information about Matthew Shepard, have a look at the website for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The organization’s mission is “to erase hate by replacing it with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”
You can watch Ellen’s moving October 14, 1998 speech at a vigil honoring Matthew Shepard in Washington, D.C., on the steps of Capitol Hill here.
In December 2001, Ellen DeGeneres hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the first time. Watch her monologue here.
You can find Ellen DeGeneres’ 2001 oral history in Eric Marcus’ book Making Gay History.
Ten years after the coming out episode, Laura Dern (a guest star who played Ellen Morgan’s love interest) was quoted on the impact the episode had on her career here.
On the twentieth anniversary of the coming out episode of “Ellen” in April 2017, Ellen DeGeneres shared her thoughts about the experience with her daytime talk show audience. And a handful of viewers shared with Ellen the impact her 1997 coming out had on them, which you can watch here.
Ellen’s mother, Betty DeGeneres, is an activist in her own right and the author of Love, Ellen: A Mother/Daughter Journey, which was published in 2000 by HarperCollins.
The website AfterEllen.com was founded in honor of Ellen’s coming out and “works the lesbian/bi pop culture beat with a fun, feminist perspective on film, television, music, books, and fashion.”
For further reading on the topic of gay and lesbian people on television from the 1950s through the 1990s, we recommend The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV by Stephen Tropiano.
I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History!
Back in the 1990’s I went to a couple of unforgettable celebrations. One was a commitment ceremony—my own—which my grandmother called our wedding. This was long before marriage equality was the law of the land and people like us had commitment ceremonies. Not weddings.
The other celebration was a viewing party for the coming out episode of “Ellen,” the popular ABC television sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneres. Twenty years ago, the one hour, two-part episode in which Ellen’s character, Ellen Morgan, came out of the closet was watched by more than 40 million people. That included me, my partner and 100 lesbians packed into a one-bedroom apartment in Chelsea in New York City. Our host that evening was my friend Ann Northrop, the famous ACT UP activist.
It was such a different time. There were no lead gay characters on television until Ellen Morgan came out. And what made her coming out even more exciting was that Ellen DeGeneres, who played Ellen Morgan, came out at the same time—on the Oprah Winfrey show, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, and famously on the cover of Time magazine. That was when Time magazine was… well, Time magazine. Take my word for it, Ellen DeGeneres on the cover with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay” was a huge deal. It was a first rate media storm and Ellen handled it with with the kind of grace and sense of humor that made me proud to be a member of her tribe.
So, when I had the opportunity to write an updated edition of my oral history book about the LGBTQ civil rights movement ten years after the first edition was published, Ellen DeGeneres was at the top of my list for new interviews. And she said yes.
Here’s the scene. It’s 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 17, 2001—two-and-a-half years after Ellen’s sitcom was cancelled. I’m in the hills above Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles standing at the doorway of Ellen’s modernist house looking at the video intercom while I take a few deep breaths. I’m just a bit nervous. I push the buzzer and after a while Ellen answers with a hello that has a question mark embedded in it. Turns out she’s forgotten about the interview and I have to explain who I am and why I’m there.
A minute later Ellen greets me at the door. She really wasn’t expecting me. She’s dressed in a fleece top over a T shirt, checked pajama bottoms, and thick socks. Her hair is a mess. I’m not nervous anymore. Ellen is very polite and apologetic as she leads me into the living room. Along the way she introduces me to her very friendly cat, a silver, black, and gray kitty with white paws and a white belly to match.
Ellen’s living room is loft like, with lots of glass overlooking a garden that backs up against a hill. It’s an elegant, comfortable space and we take our places on a long taupe mohair sofa, one of a pair facing each other across a long wood table stacked with art books.
I unzip my backpack and as soon as I get my tape recorder out, Ellen’s cat dives in to see what else is inside.
I place my tape recorder between us, attach the lapel mic to Ellen’s fleece top and I press record.
Saturday, February 17, 2001. Location is the home of Ellen DeGeneres in Los Angeles, California. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.
Eric: Just say your name and spell your name.
Ellen: Ellen DeGeneres. E-L-L-E-N D-E-G-E-N-E-R-E-S.
Eric: Does he like to sit in people’s laps?
Ellen: Oh, he’ll join you, probably…
Eric: When he gets to know me?
Ellen: …but he’s not real affectionate in that way. He’ll show up and then he’ll walk away.
Eric: My cat wasn’t either. She’d sit at the foot of my bed when I was little. I had colds all the time.
Eric: She’d sit at the foot of the bed and wait, but she didn’t like to sit in my lap.
Ellen: Right. The other one’s more like that.
Eric: So I’m going to jump right in.
Eric: When did you first learn about gay people? When did you…?
Ellen: When did I learn about gay people.
Eric: When were you aware of them?
Ellen: Umm, I really didn’t get involved at all in any kind of politics or any any awareness of gay struggles, gay movement, anything at all until I came out. Just lived my life. And all the way up until, you know, I decided to make it public. But everybody knew that I was gay. And it wasn’t a problem for anybody. So I just, you know… I lived my life. And I did my work. And I think that that’s what a lot of people choose to do. And just…
Ellen: …feel like there’s no need to do anything else. It’s fine. Like what’s the… What’s the problem? Why do we need to do anything? Until you find out about the teenagers and the struggles that most kids go through in high schools and the statistics and the gay… the bashing. Whether it’s verbal abuse or physical abuse. Until you’re really confronted with that, you don’t think that there’s a problem.
Eric: So growing up there there was no… You were never called names? And never hassled about?
Ellen: No. Not at all. Not at all.
Eric: And your family wasn’t an issue?
Ellen: They didn’t know… I didn’t know I was gay. I had thoughts of like, liking girls. It was very clear to me that I liked girls. But I didn’t think it was anything that I could actually pursue and… That that was an option for, you know… I just thought you had a boyfriend and got married and had a kid. But I didn’t ever fake it. Like I didn’t pretend to have a boyfriend or anything like that.
I knew I had to fake it when I was doing stand-up on stage. Your whole… you know, goal is to get the audience to really like you. And it’s hard enough to get them to like you when you’re a girl on stage. And I knew that that was going to be an uphill battle if they thought I was gay. It was going to be impossible. I hid that all the way, you know, publicly until I came out. Because I knew that that would hurt my career.
Eric: What was it though that made you think that it could hurt your career? What did you see that made you…?
Ellen: It’s what I didn’t see. I mean… I didn’t see anyone else that was openly gay. And there was obviously a reason for that. You hear about the people that are in the business that are. And you see how they handle their public persona. And so you kind of follow that.
And when I decided that it was more important to be me, and more important to live my life truthfully and to follow what my soul’s path is, that’s when a lot of crying started. And I realized how much fear and how much pain was surrounding my sexuality. I didn’t have a choice. It became so big of a thing to me that it didn’t matter if I was going to lose all of my money, my career… It didn’t matter. It just was what I had to do. And that became more important for the first time than my career.
Eric: How quick was that process of going from believing that your career was the most important to feeling like, “If I don’t say who I am and live who I am, I can’t go on with this”?
Ellen: Well who knows how long it had been bubbling. But when the light bulb all of a sudden went off, I think it probably was a matter of a couple of months. And I made that decision. I had told my writers that I was going to come out. And that I wanted the character to come out at the same time. So that kind of happened almost… And then it took about a year for Disney to say, “Okay, we’re gonna’ allow this.”
When they were saying you know, “I don’t know….” And I kept saying to them over and over again, “You know, you’re a huge company that can just cancel my show and move on and have another show. You know, I’m the one that stands to lose everything. And if I’m willing to do this, then at least you can be willing to do this.” I just didn’t care at the time.
You know, if I would have been fully aware of all the consequences and “Oh my God… The… you know, the public is going to hate me. And the press is gonna’ attack me. And it’s going to… you know, I’m really going to lose a lot of people, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. Or… You know, but I don’t think I had a choice. And I was naive enough to think, “Yeah. But okay they’ve already seen the show for four years. And they know who I am. They like me. I make them happy. I see the response I get. I have people who, you know, love me who are grandmothers, and young kids, and all colors and all ages. And they’re going to see that gay people are not what they… You know, everybody has a certain thing they cling onto and decide that’s what everybody is. And so maybe I can help open their eyes and help.”
And, you know, it was…. it was tough because I think that I… It’s hard for me to talk about this at this time in my life, ‘cause I don’t know how I’m going to feel, you know, later. But at the time that I came out, I also met somebody who was completely fearless in saying, “We’re gonna’ walk down the red carpet and hold hands.
I think I came out bigger than I ever intended on coming out. You know, because of meeting someone at that particular time. It was just gonna’ be a statement about my sexuality, not you know here’s what I look like in a relationship. And let’s follow me. And… and, you know, watch me grow like a Chia Pet. You know, I mean, I really felt like every step of every phase… Everything was suddenly public. And… I never intended on it being that. I just really wanted to free myself of that prison that I was in. And… It’s taken my life in a completely different direction. ‘Cause, you know, being a comedian you just really want to get back to entertaining and being funny. And I hope that that happens.
Eric: Tell me the premise of the show. The premise of your show, basically, who Ellen is, and the store, and all that. And then we’ll get to the… She worked.
Ellen: She worked. She owned a bookstore. And then she managed a bookstore. I think she bought it and then she managed it. We went through a lot of incarnations. We were just trying to keep the show afloat. We were like, “What the hell is the show?” Until we found out what it was, which is, you know, “Oh, she’s gay.” And that would have been… We could have gone another few years easily on that, which, you know…
You look back now and you see you know all the shows that are on the air now and see “Will & Grace” and it’s like, we had so many more years we could have gone with that premise had we not… You know… I mean, if we had the studio and network behind us. If they would have just held on. They didn’t say, “Let’s make this the show. Let’s just hold on and people will catch up to this.”
Eric: I get the sense they were scared and didn’t know what to do?
Ellen: Yeah. I think so. And I think anybody… I don’t think it was just ABC. And I don’t think it was just Disney. I think anybody would have done that at the time. It was the… it was brand new. And they didn’t know what to do. And I was just like, “What’s so hard about this? This is who I am! Can’t you see that this is why I’m struggling? And can’t you see…” And plus on top of that, like you know just getting all the letters of the people that I affected. And how many it impacted. And the kids. It was like, “You don’t understand how important this is.”
And then when the advisory label came on, which surprised the hell out of me… Suddenly there was a warning label to put the kids away. You know like, “Don’t let kids see this.” It’s like “No. That’s exactly what I’m trying to get, you know, through to you. It’s like, don’t put a warning label on… This is me! And you’re discriminating against me.” And, so…
Eric: They didn’t warn you.
Ellen: Oh, no. Nobody told me about that. I just was watching one night and it came on. This big, loud voice. You know… “Caution: This show contains adult content.” It’s like adult content? You know… There’s… You turn on any other show on television and they’re sleeping with each other. And they’re not married. And that’s… You know, kids can see that. That’s okay for them to see. They can see, you know, sexual innuendoes. You know, all these jokes about, you know, there are penis jokes on just about every single show. You can see violence you can see on any you know one-hour drama, somebody killing someone else. But you can’t see someone telling or holding hands or being with somebody that…
So that… That was like… That put me through the roof, you know. So I had meetings and I became trouble. I’m an easy-going person. I’m very easy to get along with. And suddenly I became somebody who was gonna’ stand up and say, “That’s not right.” And they didn’t want that. Especially from a woman. Especially from a gay woman. And I was just too much trouble. And…
Eric: You were a lot of trouble. They didn’t know what do with you.
Ellen: Yeah. And they thought it would be best just to get rid of me. And, you know, maybe they were right. Maybe I just needed to cool down a little bit. You know, but… I mean, you know, it was… It was very hard for me to deal with all that. And process… You know, you like you’re basically confirming everything I’ve feared. Like, “You don’t like me as much and you’re not going to put with as much.”
What I had been tortured, you know, by for so long is as the show was popular and as I was, you know, hosting the Emmy’s and the Grammy’s and like my career starting getting a bigger personality, bigger celebrity, I was being interviewed more and more. And they would always… And even though they knew. They were just so, you know, sneaky about it. And they would say, “So what about your personal life?” And they knew that I was gay. And I’d have to say, “I don’t talk about my personal life.” And that’s you know a legitimate answer. I think most people are allowed to say you don’t talk about your personal life, which I think I’ll be saying the rest of my life.
But no straight person, no heterosexual person, is gonna’ say, you know, “I’m not going to tell you if I’m…” You know, it’s like they’re not ashamed that they’re straight. They’re just not going to talk about their personal life. That was my torture, not being able to say those words when they ask you in an interview to just go, “Oh my personal life? I’m gay.” The fun that would have been. Just to do that. And just to…. But you couldn’t do that. And you couldn’t… So for me on the show to be able to say, “I’m gay” was like… I mean, I cried every take we did. Every time we did that. Even in rehearsal I’d cry when I did it. Because it was such a release for me. I mean that goes back to… God, you know, so much that’s around that that just cracked open
Eric: When the show was over, when you finished taping, was there a reaction from the audience at the end? Was there… What was the feeling on the set?
Ellen: I think I was too high to even know. I was like… Everybody said I looked like, you know, something had just lifted off of me.
Eric: Did it?
Ellen: Yeah. I’m sure. I’m sure. I let go of a heaviness, you know. We… we had to clear out pretty fast because there was a bomb threat. The studio had a bomb threat. So we had to get out real quick.
Eric: The bomb threat was because of you and your show?
Ellen: Yes. Yeah. It wasn’t for the catering. Yeah. They were…
Eric: When Matthew Shepard was killed, do you remember what your reaction was to that news?
Ellen: Yes. Well, he was still alive… I called the hospital when I found out about it and talked to somebody at the hospital. And they said that his parents were not receiving phone calls. I was just trying to see if there was anything I could do. And… we flew out thinking that we would… That he was still going to be alive. You know. And then… and he died when we were planning the whole thing.
I think I really thought that that should have been me. I really thought that I would be killed for what I did. And that here’s this innocent guy that got killed. And he didn’t do anything. You know. He was just gay. He didn’t make a statement. I was the one who was the threat. I was the one that was upsetting people. And I was the one who was… And I really thought it wasn’t fair. I mean like that’s a horrible thing to say that… I don’t mean that you know it wasn’t fair. I mean I just… You understand what I’m saying?
Eric: Of course I understand what you’re saying.
Ellen: It’s like… I thought, you know, he did not deserve that. And I mean it’s why I did what I did. So it would stop. So people would understand. And stop the hatred, and stop the judgment. And I was talking to a friend of his they were at a party watching the coming out episode and how Matthew was so happy. And how… And it’s just so weird to know that Matthew was watching that show.
I don’t know. I hope I’m explaining it right. ‘Cause I don’t want it to sound like, I mean, I’ve been afraid to say that out loud for a long time because it was such a fear of mine. I dealt with it in therapy, that I really thought that I would be killed for what I was doing. Because kids loved my show, you know. And I thought there’s going to be… If there’s somebody going to an abortion clinic because they don’t agree with that. You know, who knows? And we did get a bomb threat that night. And I did get death threats and all. I thought it’s inevitable. You know, I’m going to, you know, be in danger.
Eric: What kinds of letters did you get? You said you said you got hate mail and you also got other mail. What kinds of letters did you get?
Ellen: People telling me, writing me or telling me that they came out because of me. Realizing they were gay because of me. That they didn’t realize it. And also, you know, the parties that went on around the country that night. Like, when else have we had an excuse to have parties like that? Like I wish that would happen again. I wish somebody would do something so I could have like that kind of… Because it really did feel like this magical… Like everybody can remember that night. Like especially in the gay community. You know, it’s just like what happened for everybody. We united and we felt like, you know…
And I can’t really feel that because it was… I’m just… I’m in it so I don’t know what that was like. But I can imagine what that must have been like for everybody else to have that kind of party. And someone called from New York and said, you know, you could just hear like cheering from other apartment buildings. And you could… and that the streets were empty. And restaurants were closing. And that seems like a lot of fun, you know?
Being a comedian it’s a very different thing than being an actor. Because when you’re a comedian you actually make people happy. So they come up to you and they really have a different response to you. Because they just… They like you. And also being on TV every single week they feel like they know you. But because of what I did unless people are just completely narrow-minded and just evil. you know, most people, the reaction that I get I think that there’s so much respect for what I did. Even if they don’t fully understand it. But they really appreciate the fact and understand that I did something that not too many people do.
Eric: Did that help sustain you through some of the difficult times that came in the year following?
Eric: Did that help at all during that following year?
Ellen: It certainly helped. I mean if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have had, you know… Because it was… Because the press got pretty nasty. The press really turned against me. And really took advantage of, you know, pointing out the ratings. You know, sagging ratings and…it mattered to me. Always. It always mattered to me what people thought of me. Even though I’d forgotten that for a while to say, “I’m gay and I’m going to say it and I don’t care what anybody thinks, I don’t care if I lose everything.”
Ultimately, when it comes down to it, “Okay, yes now I’m gay and I’m free.” And then the reality hits like this big wave going, “We hate you. We think you’re… You know… You’re off the air now. We don’t want to watch you. You know… We’re gonna’ show you. When you’re that depressed and people are like, “But you don’t know how many people you know you’ve changed,” and you know it’s like… You know but, “Yeah. I’m sad. I’m, you know…”
Eric: How was it coming back? How different was it coming back to stand up now, from before? Because now you’re coming there as your whole person as opposed to…?
Ellen: Yeah, well, it’s great. But that personal stuff had to come out of me to get that out of the way. Because that’s actually… I keep pointing because there’s a TV there. But it’s more political and more personal than anything I’ve ever done on stage. And I think I needed to do that. But… So it’s… so it’s helped me in being, you know, free to say whatever I want on stage. And not worry that something is going to give something away. And, “Oh God, I can’t talk about that because then they’ll know I’m gay.” Or, “I can’t talk about that because that’s going to offend somebody.” Or, “I can’t talk about that because…” It’s like… Now it’s like, you know… I’ll just… I’ll say anything. And to me the only thing that’s important is honesty. And as long as I’m being honest with my feelings and coming from a good place, and coming from a true place, it’s not gonna’… It can’t possibly hurt anybody.
Eric: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you had wanted to comment on? Although I know you didn’t know I was coming.
Ellen: I want to comment on that I feel like a crazy person. I feel like one of these people that you come to see after like their careers and I’m in like… At least I’m not in a bathrobe. You know. I’m in…
Eric: Like VH1 “Behind the Music.”
Eric: Either they’re dead or they’re drug addicted.
Ellen: Right. Or they’re like… You know you show up and I’m like in my pajamas on a Saturday afternoon. This is my glamorous life. I want to say that I usually dress a lot better than this. So, when you’re saying, “She was dressed in pajamas”… There’s no alcohol on my breath.
Eric: None. None.
Ellen: I haven’t been drinking. I’m just… It’s been water. And I feel secure in that. I feel secure in my pajamas.
The place Ellen holds in our hearts and on TV was not guaranteed at the time I interviewed her. I don’t think anyone, including Ellen, would have predicted that she’d host one of the most popular, long-running daytime television shows of all time. And that’s on top of hosting awards shows, doing standup, and winning 30 Emmy Awards and more People’s Choice Awards than anyone. Ever. Add to that, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Here’s what President Obama had to say at the White House that day in November 2016:
It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law, just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost twenty years ago. Just how important it was, not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us, to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor or our colleague, or our sister, challenge our own assumptions—remind us that we have more in common than we realize. Push our country in the direction of justice.
Making Gay History is a team effort. Many thanks to our very hard-working executive producer Sara Burningham and audio engineer, Anne Pope. We had production assistance from Jenna Weiss-Berman and Josh Gwynn. Our theme music was composed by Fritz Meyers. Thank you, also, to social media strategist Will Coley, our webmaster, Jonathan Dozier-Ezell, and researchers Bronwen Pardes and Zachary Seltzer. A special thank you to Ellen’s mother Betty DeGeneres, an LGBTQ civil rights activist in her own right, who introduced me to Ellen back in 2001.
The Making Gay History podcast is a co-production of Pineapple Street Media, with assistance from the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division and ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.
Season three of this podcast is made possible with funding from the Ford Foundation, which is on the front lines of social change worldwide.
So long! Until next time!