Ellen DeGeneres Came Out With Her Television Character Twenty Years Ago: ‘I’m Gay!’

Twenty years ago, Ellen DeGeneres was starring in her own sitcom, giving television viewers their weekly dose of her own brand of humor as a single woman trying to make her way in a tough city. Like the Ellen character, DeGeneres was going through a struggle of her own, keeping her sexual orientation private for the sake of her career. Eventually, both ABC and DeGeneres came to terms with the fact that it was time to come out as gay, risking a whirlwind of criticism.

Ellen DeGeneres Celebrates 20 Years as an Openly Gay Celebrity

Ellen DeGeneres, Gwen Stefani
Ellen DeGeneres, pictured above with Gwen Stefani, opens up about coming out as gay on television. [Image by Kevin Winter/Getty Images]

As her sitcom reached its prime and success was well within her grasp, People reports that Ellen wasn’t feeling that sense of accomplishment and pride that she should have and it was because that success came at a price. Ms. DeGeneres reveals that keeping the secret of her sexual orientation had become more important than her career and it was forcing her to live each day in shame.

Eventually, the comedian turned talk show host came to terms with that internal struggle and decided for herself that it was time to come clean and let the chips fall where they may. There was just one problem. The network was even more concerned about the ramifications of coming out than DeGeneres, herself.

The plan was for the Ellen character to come out as well and, for Ms. DeGeneres, this made perfect sense. Much like the circumstances in her real life, Ellen noticed that her sitcom character was also struggling with life, and it occurred to her that the character had trouble dating men on the show for a good reason.

Once the decision was made that both the real and the fictional Ellen wanted to come out as gay, only one obstacle remained. DeGeneres had to get ABC’s approval.

“They really didn’t give us the OK [at first]. We were trying to convince them to do it, and there were closed-door meetings,” DeGeneres admitted.

“And the scripts were written on red paper so you couldn’t see the black ink. They were shredded at the end of every single day and locked in a safe. It was crazy. It was like we were spies or something.”

Finally, DeGeneres received word that the coming out episode was planned for an episode entitled “The Puppy Episode” and everything seemed good to go until it came time for Ellen to read the script. In theory, DeGeneres was ready to announce her news to the world, but in reading for the episode, she stumbled every time she came upon the line “I’m gay” in the script.

Ellen says that one line produced incredibly raw emotions in her because it’s one of the most difficult things a gay person can ever say. She points out that when someone utters those two words, it’s almost always because they’re trying to come out to a loved one and hoping for a positive reaction.

Ellen Received Its Share of Hate Mail…And Then Some

Ellen DeGeneres, Justin Timberlake
Ellen DeGeneres, shown with Justin Timberlake, says coming out produced a reaction worse than she had anticipated. [Image by Christopher Polk/Getty Images]

While most of Ellen’s fans were supportive, Page Six shares that there was some hateful backlash and DeGeneres says that the harsh criticism wasn’t just aimed at herself. In the episode, actress Laura Dern played her love interest and, as such, she received a share of the hate mail. DeGeneres says she felt bad for Dern because as a talented and heterosexual actress, she didn’t deserve to be drawn into the controversy.

DeGeneres adds that she never imagined the episode would stir as much hate as it did, resulting in death threats and a bomb scare. It was a harrowing time for Ellen and for everyone associated with DeGeneres’ show.

The ABC sitcom would last just one more season, following Ellen’s coming out episode. When the series ended, DeGeneres admitted that she was left feeling devastated and alone.

“Nobody really understood how dark it got for me. I was really, really in a deep depression,” recalls Ms. DeGeneres.

“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, like nobody loving you.”

Ellen didn’t stay down for long, however. She pulled herself back up, formed her own production company, and launched her now famous talk show. Ms. DeGeneres says her own story is proof that anyone can come back from the darkest times, build themselves up, and achieve whatever dreams they choose to pursue. She adds that something good comes from every downturn and there’s always some lesson to be learned.

“You have to just hold on and know that something good will come from it and there’s always a lesson in everything,” says Ellen DeGeneres.

[Featured Image by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]