Back in the Day: Coming Out With Ellen

Original publication date: April 2005

There are a few television events that will go down in history as watershed moments marking significant changes in American culture. In 1968 Star Trek aired television’s first interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura—one year after the Supreme Court ruled that barring interracial marriage was unconstitutional. In a 1972 episode of Maude, anAll in the Family spinoff, Maude decided to have an abortion—one year before Roe v. Wade legalized a woman’s right to choose. In 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, ABC reportedly lost $1 million in advertising when an episode of thirtysomething showed two gay men in bed together; later on, one of the two men was diagnosed as HIV positive.

And in April 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom Ellen and in real life—a year after Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act.

Ellen’s coming-out on “The Puppy Episode” was significant not only because it was the first time a leading primetime character was gay, but because the character was also played by an openly gay actor. In addition, Ellen’s real-life coming-out with then-girlfriend Anne Heche became a media frenzy, followed by a huge backlash that essentially wrote the book on how to not come out in Hollywood.

The mid-1990s weren’t the best of times for the gay rights movement, but they weren’t the worst of times, either. Despite the passage of DOMA in 1996, the media had recently embraced lesbianism as “chic”; k.d. lang posed on the cover of Vanity Fair with Cindy Crawford giving her a shave; and Melissa Etheridge was selling millions as an out lesbian rocker.

In 1997, there were reportedly 22 lesbian or gay characters in supporting roles on television, and many critics proclaimed that Ellen’s coming-out wasn’t news at all—if anything, they argued, it was a publicity stunt to save her declining sitcom.

When Ellenfirst premiered on ABC in March 1994 as a midseason replacement, it was titledThese Friends of Mine and was touted as ABC’s response to Seinfeld. It quickly rocketed onto the top of the ratings charts, and in its first season it ranked at number 13. In its second season the sitcom was reframed to focus on Ellen’s character, Ellen Morgan, and renamed Ellen.

By the time the fourth season rolled around, the show’s ratings had sunk below the top 30, and DeGeneres as well as the show’s producers were growing frustrated with Ellen Morgan’s lack of love interest. One producer famously suggested that since Ellen Morgan didn’t seem to be interested in dating, she should get a puppy—a suggestion that eventually turned into “The Puppy Episode.”

During the summer of 1996, DeGeneres and the show’s writers began negotiating with ABC and its parent company, Disney, to have Ellen Morgan come out during the next season. Although efforts were made to keep the discussions top secret, word leaked out in September and set off months of speculation about when and where Ellen (both real and fictional) would step out of the closet.

It wasn’t until March 1997, after the first version of the coming-out script had been rejected, that Disney executives gave the official go-ahead to tape “The Puppy Episode.” What followed was a media blitz: DeGeneres went on The Oprah Winfrey Show, was interviewed by Diane Sawyer, and was featured on the cover of Time with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.” At the same time, DeGeneres had just met Anne Heche, a heretofore heterosexual actress whose career was beginning to take off. DeGeneres and Heche also made the media rounds, even attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner together in late April.

By the time “The Puppy Episode” aired in a one-hour special on April 30, 1997, the first day of May sweeps, the hype had grown out of proportion to the episode itself. The Human Rights Campaign even issued “Come out with Ellen” party kits, complete with an Ellen trivia game.

The episode, which took pains to be as inoffensive about its coming-out storyline as possible, featured a cast of Hollywood stars including Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, and Laura Dern as Ellen’s love interest. It also included Jorja Fox as an uncredited extra and Gina Gershon in a cameo, and a number of lesbian celebrities, past and future. k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge made appearances, and Leisha Hailey and Jenny Shimizu were both background extras.

In the episode, Ellen reunites with her college friend Richard, a television reporter, who introduces her to his producer, Susan (Laura Dern). Ellen and Susan immediately hit it off, but when Susan reveals that she’s a lesbian and that she thought Ellen was one too, Ellen freaks out. After trying unsuccessfully to sleep with Richard to prove that she’s straight, Ellen’s therapist (Oprah Winfrey) convinced her to admit that she’s gay—something she’s known since she was a teen but was afraid to admit. In a touching and also hilarious coming-out scene, Ellen rushes to the airport to intercept Susan before she leaves, and stammers through her confession:

ELLEN: You know how you said in the room, you know, that you thought, maybe I was, you know, and I said, “no, no, no, no,” well, I was thinking about it, and I think that maybe I am, er, I am … I guess what I’m trying to say is … I did get the joke about the toaster oven.
SUSAN: Are you saying what I think you’re trying to say?
ELLEN: What do you think I’m trying to say?
SUSAN: Oh, I’m not going to say it again and be wrong.
ELLEN: No, you’re not wrong. You’re right. This is so hard. But I think I’ve realized that I am … I can’t even say the word. Why can’t I say the word, I mean, why can’t I just say … I mean, what is wrong, why do I have to be so ashamed, why can’t I just see the truth, I mean, be who I am, I’m thirty-five years old… I’m so afraid to tell people. I mean, I’m just…Susan… (Ellen turns back towards Susan, putting one hand on the counter and accidentally pressing the PA system) I’m gay.

After Ellen comes out to the entire airport (including her real-life mother, Betty DeGeneres, who played an extra waiting to board the plane), Ellen dreams about visiting a grocery store in which melons are on sale—but only for lesbians. The grocery store dream sequence provided an opportunity to include many of those Hollywood actors, and also to address, obliquely, some of the anxiety around being out in public. Just in case viewers didn’t get the message, Oprah-the-therapist overtly discusses homophobia at Ellen’s next therapy session, framing it in comparison to racism:

ELLEN: I don’t know, I thought if I just ignored it, it would just go away and I could live a normal life. 
THERAPIST: And what is a normal life, Ellen?
ELLEN: I don’t know. Normal. I mean, just the same thing everybody wants, someone to … A house with a picket fence, a dog, a cat, Sunday barbecues. Someone to love, someone who loves me. Someone I can build a life with. I just want to be happy.
THERAPIST: And you think you can’t have these things with a woman?
ELLEN: Well, society has a pretty big problem with it. There are a lot of people out there who think people like me are sick. Oh God, why did I ever rent Personal Best.
THERAPIST: You can’t blame this on the media, Ellen. It isn’t going to be easy. No one has it easy.
ELLEN: You don’t understand. Do you think I want to be discriminated against? Do you think that I want people calling me names to my face?
THERAPIST: To have people commit hate crimes against you because you’re not like them?
ELLEN: Thank you!
THERAPIST: To have to use separate bathrooms and separate water fountains and sit in the back of the bus?
ELLEN: Oh, man, we have to use separate water fountains?

Later in the episode Ellen comes out to her friends, who are so supportive of her they take her to Little Frida’s, a real lesbian coffeehouse in West Hollywood, to listen to a parody of 1970s women’s music sung by k.d. lang. At the conclusion of the episode, Melissa Etheridge gives Susan a toaster oven as her tongue-in-cheek reward for converting another woman to lesbianism.

Ratings for “The Puppy Episode” were significantly higher than Ellen’s average ratings that season; approximately 42 million viewers watched Ellen come out on primetime. Although Chrysler decided to not buy ad time for the episode, claiming that it was their policy to avoid hot-button issues, it was the only corporate sponsor who withdrew from the show—and only for “The Puppy Episode.” The episode won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 1997, as well as a GLAAD Media Award and a Peabody Award in 1998.

But all the praise was swamped by a negative conservative backlash. The right-wing group Media Research took out a full-page ad on the back cover of Variety on April 17 claiming that ABC and Disney were “promoting homosexuality to America’s families.” Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schafly, Rev. Donald Wildmon, and Rev. Jerry Falwell joined a group of antigay right-winters to sign a scathing letter characterizing “The Puppy Episode” as “a slap in the face to America’s families.”

DeGeneres soon felt the sting personally, as well, when the Washington Post and the New York Times both criticized her for being too openly affectionate with Anne Heche at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Although DeGeneres and Heche claimed that they weren’t doing anything that a straight couple would do, the New York Times characterized their behavior as an “ostentatious display of affection,” thereby teaching all future lesbian couples that they should do no more than hold hands in public.

As Ellen’s fifth season began, criticism began to mount that the show was no longer funny, possibly because it was “too gay”—a quote famously attributed to GLAAD’s Chastity Bono, who later claimed it was taken out of context. But the fifth season did deal with Ellen Morgan’s sexuality; she began dating a woman, and several episodes poked fun at Hollywood’s obsession with gay celebrities. Unable to bring in the ratings, Ellen was cancelled at the end of Season 5.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stuart Bloomberg, chairman of ABC entertainment, stated that “as the show became more politicized and issue-oriented, it became less funny and audiences noticed.” Stephen Tropiano, author of The Prime Time Closet, notes, “Instead of simply stating that the show was canceled due to low ratings, he claims that because the material was more politicized (translation: gay) and issue-oriented (translation: gay), it became less funny (translation: too gay).” Obviously, no straight TV shows are ever criticized for being “too straight.”

Although DeGeneres did suffer a backlash that put her career on the rocks for several years, her coming-out and the furor that followed paved the way for other primetime shows with gay characters. It seemed that now that someone had come out—both onscreen and off—America was ready to deal with a lead gay character, as long as they weren’t “too gay.”

In the fall of 1998, Will and Grace premiered on NBC, featuring a straight-acting gay man, Will (Eric McCormack), and his straight female friend Grace (Deborah Messing). Although Will hasn’t been able to show physical affection to his boyfriends and he hasn’t been able to sustain a longterm relationship, Will and Grace has won 12 Emmy Awards in its seven seasons so far.

Since Ellen’s coming-out episode, several TV shows have featured coming-out storylines, including All My Children, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, Once and Again, and most recently,The O.C. It’s arguable that without Ellen setting the precedent—and taking a blow for the team in the process—none of those shows would have been the same.