Throughout the month of April, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is celebrated the landmark 10-year anniversary of Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out. DeGeneres appeared on the April 14, 1997, cover of Time magazine with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay.” Her onscreen character, Ellen Morgan, would come out as well during the April 30, 1997, episode of the ABC sitcom “Ellen.” Though performers like Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang had come out years prior, it was unprecedented that both an actor and such a high-profile television character would come out simultaneously.
Ellen DeGeneres on the historic Time magazine cover from April 14, 1997.
“Ellen coming out 10 years ago kicked off a tremendous decade of visibility for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” says GLAAD President Neil Giuliano. “Ellen opened the closet door for shows like ‘Will & Grace,’ ‘The L Word’ and ‘Ugly Betty’ to succeed, and for other out performers to live their lives openly and honestly. We know that with this kind of visibility comes understanding and acceptance.”
In 2005, the University of Minnesota released three separate studies that concluded that exposure to positive depictions of gay television characters reduces prejudice. Indeed, polls have shown a shift in public opinion over the past decade about issues relating to gays and lesbians. A 1996 Pew Research poll found 65 percent of respondents opposed same-sex marriage, versus 56 percent 10 years later. Also in 2006, Pew found 48 percent oppose allowing gays to adopt, down from 57 percent in 1999.
In late 1996, when GLAAD received the news that DeGeneres’ “Ellen” character would be coming out that season, it launched a “Let Ellen Out!” campaign to create grassroots support and developed “Ellen Watch,” a Web page dedicated to following the title character’s journey in her coming out process. For the April 30, 1997, episode, entitled “The Puppy Episode,” GLAAD organized “Come Out With Ellen” house parties in more than 1,500 households nationwide, inviting fans to support DeGeneres and one another.
While anti-gay activists launched their own campaign to keep the episode from airing, only one affiliate, ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Ala., refused to show the historic episode. GLAAD worked with Birmingham Pride Alabama to help 3,000 local fans see the banned telecast via satellite. Ultimately, 42 million people tuned in to “The Puppy Episode,” making it the most-watched program of the week — and ABC’s most-watched program of the season. The episode went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing and a Peabody Award, and the series was awarded a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV Comedy Series.
DeGeneres’ courage to come out in such a public forum has undoubtedly helped countless people come out as well to live open and honest lives. “Grey’s Anatomy” actor T.R. Knight appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” as a guest on January 17, 2007. He talked about his own experience in coming out, crediting DeGeneres for paving the way for others like him to come out as well.
To mark the 10th anniversary of Ellen’s historic “The Puppy Episode,” The Oxygen network aired an Ellen marathon on April 30, highlighting the two-part historic episode.
Timeline of major events in LGBT television history since Ellen DeGeneres came out
TV Guide declares DeGeneres’ “Ellen” character will make TV history by announcing she is a lesbian. In a move to create grassroots support, GLAAD launches its “Let Ellen Out!” campaign and develops “Ellen Watch,” a Web page dedicated to monitoring the show and following the title character’s journey in coming out.
Appearing as a guest on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” DeGeneres jokingly “clarifies” that her alter-ego, Ellen Morgan, is coming out on her sitcom later in the season as openly Lebanese, because she enjoys both baba ganoush and Casey Kasem. O’Donnell, who was not yet out publicly, responds by saying that since she is also a big fan of Casey Kasem, “maybe I’m Lebanese, too.” DeGeneres quips, “I pick up sometimes that you might be Lebanese.” These comments unleash a media frenzy.
Time magazine ends all speculation by putting Ellen DeGeneres on its cover with the headline “Yep, I'm Gay.”
The anti-gay Media Research Center takes out a full-page ad on the back cover of Variety claiming that ABC and Disney are “promoting homosexuality to America’s families” by airing Ellen’s highly-publicized and anticipated coming out episode.
DeGeneres makes headlines when she brings new girlfriend Anne Heche to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and poses for pictures with her arm around her. The next day, The New York Times describes her behavior as an “ostentatious display of affection with her lover in front of President Clinton.”
Entertainment Weekly names DeGeneres “Entertainer of the Year” in its “Best of 1997” issue. EW writes, “At a time when an acknowledgment of homosexuality has entered all aspects of popular culture, when diversity and acceptance are the words of the day but by no means entirely the deeds, and when more and more of the sizable population of homosexual men and women working in the entertainment industry today are weighing the risks of coming out themselves, DeGeneres allowed herself to became a poster girl — not for lesbianism, but for honesty.”
DeGeneres is honored at the 9th Annual GLAAD Media Awards with the Stephen F. Kolzak Award, presented to an openly LGBT media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equal rights for the community.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stuart Bloomberg, chairman of ABC entertainment, states that “as [‘Ellen’] became more politicized and issue-oriented, it became less funny and audiences noticed.” Though GLAAD launches a vigorous letter-writing campaign called “Save Ellen,” the show is cancelled.
NBC debuts its new comedy, “Will & Grace,” about a gay man and his straight best friend. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “Will & Grace” co-creator Max Mutchnick says, “‘Ellen’ was about the journey of that character. Ours is the celebration of this relationship. We’re in broader, more appealing territory.” It runs for eight successful seasons and wins 16 Emmys and seven GLAAD Media Awards.
DeGeneres returns to television to perform her first HBO Comedy Special, “Ellen DeGeneres: The Beginning.” It is nominated for two Emmy Awards. In a 2007 interview with Barbara Walters, DeGeneres explains that she decided to write the special so she could turn her floundering career around: “They'll see that I’m funny, and you know, I’ll get a job.” One year later, her new sitcom, “The Ellen Show,” premieres, and she is asked to host the Primetime Emmy Awards.
Life partners and co-producers Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen adapt the hit British series “Queer as Folk” as a Showtime series for American audiences. Their goal is to present an honest depiction of gay life in the United States. Though “Queer as Folk” was criticized for not offering a diverse portrayal of the LGBT community and issues, its five seasons were groundbreaking in many ways.
HBO presents “Six Feet Under,” a gay-inclusive drama about a family running a funeral home in Los Angeles. Throughout the series’ six seasons, youngest son David comes out to his family, dates and ultimately moves in with Keith Charles and parents two sons. “Six Feet Under” is the recipient of three Golden Globes, nine Emmys and three GLAAD Media Awards.
DeGeneres’ new sitcom, “The Ellen Show,” premieres on CBS. She plays a lesbian internet executive who returns to her hometown for a quieter way of life. It is cancelled after 13 episodes.
DeGeneres hosts the “53rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards.” The show had been rescheduled twice following the September 11, 2001, attacks. In the opening monologue, she famously jokes, “We’re told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?” Her hosting style is widely praised and she would return as a solo host again in 2005.
Talk show host Rosie O’Donnell comes out in an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Primetime Thursday.” She says, “I don’t think America knows what a gay parent looks like. I am the gay parent. America has watched me parent my children on TV for six years.”
“The Wire” premieres on HBO. The gritty drama concentrates on the efforts of police to infiltrate a West Baltimore drug ring. Lesbian detective Shakima Greggs is one of the central characters. Over the course of the series, she will have a baby with her partner. Another prominent character is gay criminal Omar Little, who goes on a shooting spree when his lover is killed in season one. “The Wire” is the recipient of a Peabody Award and was nominated for an Emmy, two GLAAD Media Awards and 11 Image Awards.
Bravo premieres “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” featuring five openly gay hosts giving makeovers to straight men. It wins an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004. The series would wrap production four years later.
here!TV, America’s first network dedicated to airing LGBT programming, debuts as a premium cable channel and video on demand.
DeGeneres launches her daytime talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which goes on to win a total of 15 Daytime Emmy Awards during its first three seasons. Now in its fourth season, the show is currently nominated for 12 Daytime Emmys.
“The L Word” premieres on Showtime. It delves into the lives and loves of a group of lesbian and bisexual women living in Los Angeles. Its fifth season will air in 2008.
DeGeneres and Robert DeNiro are chosen to represent American Express in its new “My life. My card.” campaign. DeGeneres is the first openly gay person tapped to be an Amex spokesperson. Her spots continue to run today.
DeGeneres appears on the cover of The Advocate, photographed by her partner Alexandra Hedison, but when the issue hits newsstands, their four-year relationship has ended.
MTV Networks launches Logo, a network dedicated exclusively to LGBT programming.
When DeGeneres wins her second consecutive Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host, she kisses her partner, Portia de Rossi, and closes her speech with “Portia, I love you.”
Former ’N Sync singer Lance Bass comes out on the cover of People magazine with the headline “I’m Gay!,” an homage to DeGeneres’ earlier Time cover.
Actor T.R. Knight comes out. When he appears on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” the following January, he is overcome with emotion when crediting DeGeneres for paving the way for others like him to come out as well.
Actor Neil Patrick Harris comes out.
DeGeneres is the first openly gay entertainer to host the Academy Awards. In her opening monologue, she jokes, “If there weren’t any blacks, Jews or gays there wouldn’t be any Oscars.”