On April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres’ TV character, Ellen Morgan, came out as lesbian, on “Ellen.” By introducing the first-ever gay lead character on television, it was a breakthrough moment for the LGBQT community. Forty-four million viewers tuned in to watch “The Puppy Episode.” The episode won an Emmy and a Peabody Award. DeGeneres has since won 30 Daytime Emmy Awards, 20 People’s Choice Awards, hosted the Oscars, voiced the forgetful, yet loveable fish, Dory, and has hosted her long-running afternoon talk show since 2003. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Ellen,” a show about a neurotic bookstore owner and her quirky friends, was in its fourth season and the writers were looking for fresh show ideas. ABC had been pressuring them to introduce a love interest for Ellen’s character on the show. Although DeGeneres was not yet public about her sexual orientation, she had already been “out” with her friends and family for years. When she and the writers suggested that Ellen come out on the show, one ABC executive balked at the idea. When he quipped that the character should get a puppy because she was not coming out, the title of the history-making episode was born.
Although there was a lot of buzz around the upcoming episode, everyone on the show worked to keep the details about it a secret. All scripts were printed on dark burgundy paper so that no one could Xerox it. A-list celebrities clamored to make a guest appearance, including Oprah Winfrey, who played Ellen’s therapist. Billy Bob Thornton and Demi Moore appeared in a dream sequence, and Laura Dern played Susan, Ellen’s love interest.
In the breakthrough TV moment, Ellen shows up at LAX looking for Susan, to reveal her feelings. For comedic effect, everything is accidentally broadcast via microphone for the entire airport to hear. She tells Susan, “I can’t even say the word. What’s wrong with me? There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Why am I so afraid to tell people… I’m 35 years old. Why can’t I just come out and say… I’m gay. You hear that? I’m gay. And, it sounds pretty darn good. And it sounds pretty
darn loud. Oh my God.”
Although empowering to many, this breakthrough moment was also met with its share of backlash. Reverend Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson expressed their outrage by referring to her as “Ellen Degenerate.” Groups took out full-page ads to protest “Ellen.” ABC slapped on an adult content warning at the start of each subsequent episode. There were also bomb threats and death threats. Advertisers started to pull out the show was canceled the following season.
Coming out on “Ellen” was a watershed moment for the LGBQT community. In a 2017 interview with the Associated Press, DeGeneres reflected on her hopes for even more acceptance in society: “You can look around and see that there’s still a lot of work to be done… You have to just hold on and know that something good will come from it and there’s always a lesson in everything.”