Ellen DeGeneres‘ groundbreaking decision to star as the first openly gay character on primetime television wasn’t easy to make.
The talk show host opens up to TIME Firsts about having her character on the ABC hit sitcom Ellen announce that she was gay in 1997, shortly after DeGeneres appeared on Time with the cover line, “Yep, I’m Gay.
“I was warned by my publicist at the time — everybody said, ‘We could destroy this whole show.’ But, you know, it’s my life,” she says.
“Leading up to coming out, I wasn’t trying to be political,” adds DeGeneres, 59. “I wasn’t trying to be an activist. When I did, it just made sense that the character would come out, and it was the greatest thing that happened because it sent me on a different trajectory, and here I am now and there’s no secrets. I’m not ashamed of anything.”
The Finding Dory star experienced her share of bullying, however. She recalls performing stand-up comedy following two acts that were “very homophobic and slamming women in every kind of way.”
“No one knew that I was gay necessarily, it was just a very angry, testosterone-filled crowd by the time I got on stage,” she says. “The entire front row of guys got up and turned their chairs around and face the audience. It was a night that I never thought that I’d do comedy again.”
“I don’t know where those guys are now, but they didn’t get the Medal of Freedom,” the comedian quips.
“That the president of the United States would be talking about me being brave … ” she says “You have this one moment in time to be fully who you are. That’s what I decided to do, and I got rewarded for it.”
Fighting back tears, she 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, standing in front of all of you.”