“I’m Ellen and I’m Gay,” Ellen DeGeneres announced on Friday as she was greeted with a roar of applause during the opening remarks of her daytime television show. “Twenty years ago I said that and it was a much bigger deal then.”
For the past 14 years, DeGeneres has been a guest in the homes and on the TV screens of millions of Americans every day as the beloved host of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, but many forget that two decades ago, she changed the face of television as the first prime-time lead character on TV to come out as gay. Although she received incredible support from fans, the backlash from her confession had repercussions that no one could have predicted. In the years that followed, DeGeneres received death threats, hate mail, a bomb scare, and she watched helplessly as she became the butt of joke after joke. Her career ground to a startling halt.
On April 30, 1997, DeGeneres announced to the world in an episode of her self-titled sitcom, Ellen that she was a lesbian. Officially named “The Puppy Episode” to disguise the content to viewers who were tuning in, DeGeneres and her producers had to beg the network executives to approve the script. Now considered a landmark moment in both entertainment and the LGBTQ community, the episode reached more than 44 million viewers and won several awards including a Peabody and an Emmy. But despite the controversy and the ratings, the show lasted only one more season. DeGeneres would not find work for another three years and has talked openly about grappling with depression and how she was forced to start over again.
Oprah Winfrey, who played her therapist in the pivotal episode, described to The Associated Press that when the show wrapped she was unprepared for the tidal wave of hate that followed. Laura Dern, the Oscar-nominated actress who co-starred with DeGeneres in the infamous episode, was also blackballed for a year as the industry made assumptions that Dern’s involvement meant she was also gay. Both Dern and Winfrey who were guests Friday on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, discussed their experiences and pride at having been asked to be involved. “You were the bravest woman in the world,” Winfrey told DeGeneres.
Having recently re-watched the episode, DeGeneres said she was surprised in the end at just how many people she upset. “I assumed that people knew and that it wasn’t going to be that much of a shock,” she told Winfrey, “but people often choose their career over being truthful and I just felt that being truthful was more important.”
DeGeneres, who was awarded the Medal of Freedom last year by President Obama and remains a passionate activist for the LGBTQ community, said she does not regret the decision she made two decades ago to come out to the world, and is touched that is affected so many lives. “As long as you stay true to exactly who you are, you will be rewarded in ways that you can’t imagine.” In a show of just how widespread the impact the pivotal moment had on others, Human Rights Campaign put together a video montage chronicling the years since the big revelation. Watch it below.
And DeGeneres had a little fun on Twitter with the famous “Yep, I’m Gay,” TIME magazine cover.
Watch the 20th anniversary message from friends and supporters here gathered by The Associated Press.
And to see all the highlights from today’s anniversary celebration on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, watch below.
Read the full story at The Associated Press.