Ellen DeGeneres' Iconic 'Coming-Out' Episode Aired 25 Years Ago Today: Why It Was So Groundbreaking

On April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres publicly came out as gay on her sitcom, Ellen

Ellen DeGeneres arrives for the 77th annual Golden Globe Awards
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On April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres publicly came out as gay on her ABC sitcom, Ellen — making her character, Ellen Morgan, the first gay or lesbian lead character on a U.S. network television show.

Now, 25 years later, the longtime TV host and comedian is celebrating the milestone and taking a trip down memory lane.

During Thursday's episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, DeGeneres, 64, paid tribute to her former sitcom's coming-out episode and opened up about how that moment impacted her and her career.

"When I came out, people warned me that it was going to ruin my career, and they were right for a while," she said during her opening monologue. "Actually, for exactly three years, I lost my career. But look at me now."

"It really goes to show you how important it is to be your authentic self, and how important it is to accept others as their authentic selves," she continued. "I didn't see a lot of people like me on television when I was a kid — Peppermint Patty, of course. As soon as I saw those sensible shoes, I knew. The creator said she wasn't a lesbian, but good grief."

"So, it's been 25 years since my coming-out episode, and the only time I'm in the closet now is when Portia and I play hide and seek," DeGeneres added, referencing her wife, Portia De Rossi. "I think about what the next 25 years will bring, and I hope that we keep evolving. I hope, like a little tiny egg that turns into a caterpillar that then turns into a cocoon that eventually, emerges and spreads its big gay butterfly wings."

That pivotal moment DeGeneres is referring to instantly changed the landscape of American television — and the comedian's life forever.

In the episode titled "The Puppy Episode" — a title that was used as a code name for Ellen's coming-out in order to keep the content of the episode under wraps — DeGeneres' character, Ellen, told Laura Dern's character, Susan, that she's gay.

"This is so hard, but I think, I, I, I've realized… that I am… I can't even say the word," Ellen, who played a neurotic bookstore owner in her thirties, said in the episode. "Why I can't say the word?"

"I mean, why can't I just say… I mean, what is wrong? Why, why do I have to be so ashamed? I mean, why can't I just… say the truth, I mean, be who I am," she continued. "I'm 35 years old, I'm so afraid to tell people, I mean, I just… Susan, I'm gay."

The star-studded episode, which also featured Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, and Melissa Etheridge, was estimated to have been watched by 42 million people.

Laura Dern and Ellen
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Speaking with Entertainment Weekly in 2017, Mark Driscoll, the former executive producer of Ellen, opened up about DeGeneres' vision for that special episode, which ended up winning an Emmy and earned DeGeneres a Peabody Award.

"She invited us all to her house and she made the announcement," he recalled. "She said, 'I want to come out. I'm going to do it personally, and I'm going to do it on the show at the end of the season, and we're going to write to that and build toward that.' So we were all thrilled. It just gave us direction for the whole season."

"I thought, 'Is that such a big deal? Don't people know that you're gay?'" he asked. "But there was no social media then, there was no internet like we have it now, so I guess the inner circle knew but people in Des Moines didn't have any idea. It was a huge deal."

Not only did the episode receive unfathomable media exposure (DeGeneres confirmed the news with a coming-out interview on Oprah and posed for a Time magazine cover that read, "Yep, I'm Gay"), but it also began a controversial discussion amongst viewers and executives, with some affiliates refusing to air the episode and advertisers pulling commercials.

"She's a very private person, and I think she was probably going through a lot more scary stuff than she was letting on to us," Driscoll recalled. "So with us, it was always about how the show's going and how it's perceived and is it sharp enough, but I can't imagine the phone calls and letters that she was getting. Because we weren't talking about that with her in the room."

"And I saw recently that old clip of an Oprah show where people are just yelling at [Ellen], 'They don't have to shove that in our face!' You could see their veins popping out; it looked like those people lined up during the Civil Rights Movement where the African-Americans are trying to go into a school and these people are just red in the face screaming [at them] and it was absolutely that big and horrible," Driscoll noted.

He continued: "I had three kids at the time — my youngest, Ian, was a toddler — cut to 17 years later and he came out in high school, and it was just wonderful and easy, and you have to think that that episode helped somehow to pave the way for so many kids to do that."

Ellen DeGeneres
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To Driscoll's point, DeGeneres was met with an onslaught of love and support by many.

According to a study in 2015, DeGeneres did more to influence Americans' attitudes about gay rights than any other celebrity or public figure. The following year, President Barack Obama awarded DeGeneres with the highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, saying: "It's easy to forget now — when we've come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law — just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago."

The episode was also monumental in helping to open the door for other successful and long-running shows with leading LGBTQ characters and storylines, like Will & Grace and Modern Family.

An annual report by GLAAD in 2021 found that LGBTQ representation for series regulars on broadcast prime-time scripted TV hit an all-time high, at 11.9%, for the 2021-2022 season.

Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi
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Speaking with PEOPLE in 2014, DeGeneres admitted she didn't realize the impact her identity would have on the public.

"I thought everyone knew me and I didn't think that one little adjective was going to define me. I didn't have perspective for a while," she said. "Now I look at it as a movie that I saw that someone went through, and I only experience the amazing life that I have right now."

Today, DeGeneres — who wed de Rossi in 2008 — could not be more grateful.

"A lot of people didn't think this show would work because I was openly gay, and you proved them wrong," she said on Thursday's episode of her show. "This job has been one of the greatest honors of my life, and thank you for inviting me into your homes for 19 years, and accepting me for who I am. I am so grateful that I've had this platform to not only give a voice to the gay community, but to all people who feel like they're not seen. That to me is something I'm most proud of."

"From the bottom of my heart, I say thank you," she added.

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