Revisiting the Archive — Episode 7 — Ellen DeGeneres
Today, Ellen DeGeneres needs no introduction. But as she explained in a 2001 MGH interview, her very public 1997 coming out took a dramatic professional and personal toll. When life goes off the rails, there’s no knowing what the future holds. We’re challenged to push ahead to fight for better days.
Visit our Season Three episode webpage for background information, archival photos, and other resources.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is another dispatch from Making Gay History’s makeshift studio closet on West 20th Street in New York City.
It’s been seven weeks since my partner Barney and I began sheltering in place. Looking out our back window at the townhouse gardens where spring is unfolding with all its promise of renewal, it’s hard to imagine all the heartbreak unfolding at hospitals across the city. The number of deaths in my home state is still in the hundreds every day, but it’s nearly half the number of just three weeks ago. Not a reason to celebrate, but a sign of hope that the pandemic will one day come to an end.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a pretty dark streak. One of my early books was called Expect the Worst; You Won’t Be Disappointed. It was a book of humor, but with a definite pessimistic edge. So it’s always been something of a struggle for me to see adversity as an opportunity, that out of a crisis it’s possible to come back stronger. Different than before, but stronger.
Five years ago I was fired from my job at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I was devastated. I was in my early 50s and I had no idea what I was going to do. Barney reassured me that I would land on my feet, as I always had. And then he uttered that old cliche that one day I’d look back and see that getting fired was the best thing that had ever happened to me. That really pissed me off because it sure didn’t feel that way in the moment. But one thing I’ve learned in a long-term relationship is that there are times when your partner means well and it’s best to bite your tongue—and in the end, he turned out to be right.
If I hadn’t been fired, there would be no Making Gay History podcast. It’s been the most rewarding work of my career—a project that’s reached and touched and inspired many thousands of people around the world. I wish I’d known five years ago how things would turn out, but that’s the thing about a moment like this or any moment in your life where you’ve had the stuffing knocked out of you. The path forward isn’t clear. You can’t know what lies ahead.
It was just such a moment for Ellen DeGeneres when I first interviewed her nearly 20 years ago for the second edition of the Making Gay History book. Ellen, the character on her namesake television sitcom, had come out spectacularly at the same time that Ellen, the person, came out, too. LGBTQ representation on TV has come so far since then that it’s hard to convey to young people what that extraordinary moment was like. But I can tell you that the night the now famous coming-out episode aired—23 years ago this week—my partner and I were at one of the hundreds of viewing parties that took place across the U.S. It was April 30, 1997.
When I met Ellen nearly four years later, her career was in ruins. Her sitcom had been canceled a year after the coming-out episode, and as you’re going to hear, there was no clear path forward. No one would have predicted she’d wind up hosting one of the most popular and enduring daytime television shows of all time.
So here’s the scene. It was 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 17, 2001. I was in the hills above Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles standing at the doorway of Ellen’s modernist house looking at the video intercom. I was a little nervous, so I took a couple of deep breaths before I pushed the buzzer. After a while, Ellen answered with a hello that had a question mark embedded in it. Turned out she’d forgotten about the interview and I had to explain who I was and why I was there.
A minute later Ellen greeted me at the door. She really wasn’t expecting me. She was dressed in a fleece top over a T-shirt, checked pajama bottoms, and thick socks. Her hair was a mess. Not a fashionable bedhead mess—a real mess. Ellen was very polite and apologetic as she led me into the living room. Along the way she introduced 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 was loft-like, with lots of glass overlooking a garden. We took our places on a long taupe mohair sofa.
I unzipped my backpack and as soon as I got my tape recorder out, Ellen’s cat dove in to see what else was inside.
I placed my tape recorder between us, attached the lapel mic to Ellen’s top, and I pressed record.
Eric Marcus: Does he like to sit in people’s laps?
Ellen DeGeneres: Oh, he’ll join you, probably…
EM: When he gets to know me?
ED: … but he’s not real affectionate in that way. He’ll show up and then he’ll walk away.
EM: My cat wasn’t either. She’d sit at the foot of my bed when I was little. I had colds all the time.
EM: She’d sit at the foot of the bed and wait, but she didn’t like to sit in my lap.
ED: Right. The other one’s more like that.
EM: Saturday, February 17, 2001. Location is the home of Ellen DeGeneres in Los Angeles, California. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.
Just say your name and spell your name for me.
Ellen: Ellen DeGeneres. E-L-L-E-N D-E-G-E-N-E-R-E-S.
EM: So I’m going to jump right in.
EM: When did you first learn about gay people? When did you…?
ED: When did I learn about gay people.
EM: When were you aware of them?
ED: 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…
ED: … 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.
EM: So growing up there there was no… You were never called names? And never hassled about…?
ED: No. Not at all. Not at all.
EM: And your family wasn’t an issue?
ED: 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.
EM: What was it though that made you think that it could hurt your career? What did you see that made you…?
ED: 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.
EM: 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”?
ED: 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.
EM: 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…
ED: 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 the 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.”
EM: I get the sense they were scared and didn’t know what to do?
ED: 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? 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…
EM: They didn’t warn you.
ED: 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…
EM: You were a lot of trouble. They didn’t know what do with you.
ED: 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 Emmys and the Grammys and, like, my career started 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
EM: 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?
ED: 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.
EM: Did it?
ED: 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.
EM: The bomb threat was because of you and your show?
ED: Yes. Yeah. It wasn’t for the catering. Yeah. They were…
EM: When Matthew Shepard was killed, do you remember what your reaction was to that news?
ED: 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?
EM: Of course I understand what you’re saying.
ED: 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.
EM: 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?
ED: 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.
EM: Did that help sustain you through some of the difficult times that came in the year following?
EM: Did that help at all during that following year?
ED: 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…
EM: 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…?
ED: 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.
EM: 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.
ED: 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…
EM: Like VH1 Behind the Music.
EM: Either they’re dead or they’re drug addicted.
ED: 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.
EM: None. None.
ED: I haven’t been drinking. I’m just… It’s been water. And I feel secure in that. I feel secure in my pajamas.
EM Narration: When we’ve been knocked back on our heels, it can be hard to see a happy future ahead. But we can hope for, and fight for, better times—for ourselves and those we love.
All these years later, we can look back and see the key role Ellen’s life and legacy play in our LGBTQ history. I’m reminded of what President Obama had to say about Ellen when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in November 2016. Here’s what he said:
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 20 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.
So Ellen’s one of my heroes. I’m also mindful that our heroes are human… and never perfect. None of us is. But Ellen’s positive and far-reaching impact on our history and our place in the world is undeniable.
Last week, as part of our episode about Kay Lahusen’s gay table, I asked you to fill in the sentence, “I made gay history when…” and to email me your response. Several of you did just that. I’d like to share just two. Dori wrote:
I made gay history when I chose to feel pride in calling myself a lesbian, despite feeling like I’m somehow faking it or I’m inherently predatory because of it. I’m 17 and it feels like the world has already decided who I am. I feel like anyone who is proud of who they are and loves themselves despite the world telling them they shouldn’t is making history.
And here’s the second, from Chad Moore:
I made gay history when I started the first Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at the middle school where I teach. I have about 15 kids attend on an average week. I had a kid come out to me this year over a Zoom meeting during this time of online learning and I have so many other wonderful and beautiful stories that have come from the creation of this group.
Thank you, Dori, and thank you, Chad, for all the ways in which you’ve made, are making, and will make gay history.
Thank you also to our listeners who have recently made donations to support Making Gay History, so we can continue sharing these stories that have the power to inspire. I know that many people are struggling financially and that foundations are understandably being called upon to redirect their funding to essential services. So I’m especially grateful to supporters like the Neil Barsky and Joan S. Davidson Foundation.
We’re also extremely grateful to the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation for choosing to support Making Gay History’s mission for another year. The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation supports organizations that advance social justice by empowering world-changing work in investigative journalism, arts and culture, and documentary film.
This special episode of Making Gay History was produced by Sara Burningham, Making Gay History’s founding editor and producer. Thank you, Sara! And thank you to Inge De Taeye, Making Gay History’s deputy director, for handling all the post-production work to get our episodes out to you.
So long. Stay safe. Until next time.