It’s been 20 years since Ellen DeGeneres publicly came out as gay. But the public declaration didn’t come easy.
“It became more important to me than my career,” she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I suddenly said, ‘Why am I being, you know, ashamed of who I am just to be successful and famous in society’s eyes?’ ”
DeGeneres herself didn’t just come out — her character on the ABC hit sitcom Ellen did too. The episode titled “The Puppy Episode” was taped in front of a live audience that aired on April 30, 1997.
“I thought, the character on the show is clearly struggling. There’s no relationship,” she said. “It was pretty clear it would be an easy transition for her to realize she was gay, which was why her relationships with men weren’t working out.”
“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.”
Once green-lit, DeGeneres found herself having a trouble reading the script and saying the words, “I’m gay.”
“I started to say it and I would tear up,” she recalled. “And I realized how charged that sentence was because, you know, when you’re gay, the only time you say ‘I’m gay’ is when you’re revealing it to someone, when you’re telling your parents or when you’re telling someone close to you. Because most people never have to say, ‘I’m straight.’ ”
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Once the episode aired, DeGeneres wasn’t the only one who received backlash and hate from it.
“I knew I was risking hurting my career,” she said. “But to know that Laura Dern was punished for it just because she played my love interest in that show is crazy. I mean, she’s a brilliant actress, she’s heterosexual and yet she was punished. And Oprah [Winfrey] got hate mail just for being a part of it.”
“Obviously, that’s why a lot of people don’t come out, because there’s a very loud and clear message … that a lot of people don’t understand it [being gay], and because they don’t understand it they fear, and because they fear it they hate it,” DeGeneres recalled. “But I had no idea the amount of hate. I had no idea that there would be death threats or a bomb scare. It was a really scary time.”
The 59-year-old went on to say that she felt “depressed” and “attacked” after the series ended.
“Nobody really understood how dark it got for me. I was really, really in a deep depression,” she recalled. “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.”
Then it all changed for the daytime talk show host.
“For me to crawl out of that and to accomplish what I’ve accomplished with the show and with my brand and with my production company, and to succeed after all that … [It] makes me realize that no matter how dark something gets, and no matter how bad something gets, that there’s always a possibility of good coming from it,” she said. “You have to just hold on and know that something good will come from it and there’s always a lesson in everything.”
The iconic episode was watched by an estimated 44 million viewers and went on to win an Emmy for writing, a Peabody as a landmark in broadcasting and a handful of other accolades.