Back in the Day: Coming Out With Ellen

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.