With those two words, on April 30, 1997, Ellen Morgan soared into the history books as primetime television’s first openly gay main character. More than 40 million people watched Ellen, the character, come out two weeks after Ellen DeGeneres, the person, came out in an equally big way – on the cover of Time magazine declaring simply, “Yep, I’m gay.”
Sarah Kate Ellis was one of those 40 million glued to her television on that Wednesday night in 1997. “Ellen’s coming out had a big impact on me,” Ellis, now the president and CEO of GLAAD, tells ET Canada. “It was a powerful moment to see someone like me on television and it’s no coincidence that later that year, I came out to my family.”
For DeGeneres, who was 39 years old in 1997, the decision to come out both on and off camera, while initially fraught with anxiety, was ultimately necessary. In an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, which aired the same day as the historic episode of “Ellen”, the comedian explained. “As long as I had this secret that I worried about all the time, it made it look like something was wrong,” adding, “if I could show people that it’s okay and I have this wonderful way to do it, why not do it that way?”
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The episode of “Ellen” was officially titled “The Puppy Episode” partially to keep the storyline top secret, but also as a cheeky nod to the difficulty with which it came to be in the first place. The sitcom was in its fourth season at the time and the main character had yet to have a romantic interest. When DeGeneres and the show’s writers and producers saw this as an opportunity for her to come out as gay, a network executive suggested that the character get a puppy instead. In a special episode of her talk show on Friday celebrating the anniversary, Ellen told her audience, “I can’t explain how challenging it was to get the episode made.”
“The Puppy Episode marked a major turning point for gay and lesbian representation in mainstream media,” says Memoree Joelle, editor-in-chief of AfterEllen.com, a website dedicated to the representation of lesbian and bisexual women in popular culture. “Really, Ellen herself and her ongoing success have truly paved the way for us all.”
But not everyone wanted that way to be paved at all. Advertisers like JC Penny and Chrysler refused to buy time during The Puppy Episode and the ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to air the episode altogether.
Jerry Falwell, a Baptist pastor and founder of The Moral Majority publicly denounced Ellen referring to her as “Ellen Degenerate.”
And while the groundbreaking episode generated blockbuster ratings for the network, the subsequent season featuring Ellen Morgan navigating the dating world and finding her place in the gay community, quickly lost steam.
The show was even criticized for being “too gay” before it was ultimately cancelled in season five. “It’s sort of been a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ situation for us,” says Joelle. “When you do something controversial, of course there’ll be some blowback…and let’s face it, being openly lesbian on TV was not accepted back then. It just wasn’t.”
The cancellation left DeGeneres struggling both professionally and personally with the comedian telling The Associated Press this week, “Nobody really understood how dark it got for me. I was really, really, in a deep depression. I had never been so down in my life. I was depressed. I was broke. I felt attacked. It was everything that you just fear in life, nobody loving you.”
On her talk show Friday Ellen said, “It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life and I would not change one moment of it because it led me to be exactly where I am today.” Oprah Winfrey and Laura Dern, who both appeared in The Puppy Episode, revealed they received hate mail after their appearances and Dern admitted she couldn’t get work for a year after it aired.
While serious strides have been made in the 20 years since The Puppy Episode both in pop culture and society (same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada in 2005, with marriage equality eventually coming to fruition in the United States 10 years later in 2015) to say that LGBTQ people enjoy total and complete equality would be disingenuous.
“In terms of equal rights we’re certainly in a better spot than we were 20 years ago,” admits Ellis. “However, there are still hate crimes, discriminatory laws, and bullying that happens everywhere from metropolitan to rural areas. In terms of LGBTQ media images, we need both more of it and more diverse stories that show the full spectrum of the community.”
After all, it did take until 2017 for a film like “Moonlight” about a young black queer man to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
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“The issue of LGBTQ representation on screen is a complicated one, and has become an increasingly politically charged conversation,” offers Joelle. “We have to realize that we are a minority and the only way minorities have ever received visibility is by taking action.”
For Joelle, that action needs to begin behind the camera. “The ability of film studios and TV shows to accurately depict LGBT characters can only happen when they are written and directed by LGBT people,” she says. “Right now we are seeing the beginning of that reality but Hollywood is still a straight white male-dominated industry.”
Ellen herself agrees, telling AP, “you can look around and see that there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
So while progress may still be a work in progress, both Joelle and Ellis agree the impact of what Ellen DeGeneres did two decades ago simply cannot be underestimated, so much so GLAAD has launched a #ThankYouEllen campaign to mark the milestone.
“It was absolutely a key component in a shift towards more LGBTQ-inclusive stories on television,” says Ellis. “Shows that followed like ‘Will and Grace’, ‘The L Word’ and ‘Transparent’ didn’t happen in a vacuum, it took moments like Ellen coming out to open the door.”