In the April 1997 “Puppy Episode” of the show Ellen, Ellen DeGeneres officially came out. DeGeneres simultaneously came out in character and in real life, appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show with her girlfriend and gracing the cover of Time Magazine along with large text reading: “Yep, I’m Gay.”
In an article for the radical feminist periodical off our backs just a month later, Laura B. recorded some of the immediate aftermath of the episode. She noted that a local network in Birmingham, AL, deemed the episode inappropriate for viewers and “refused to broadcast it.” Big companies like Chrysler, General Motors, and Johnson & Johnson pulled their advertising, while meanwhile, ABC refused alternative commercials from both the Human Rights Campaign and Olivia Cruises and Resorts, a lesbian-oriented vacation company.
The episode was celebrated, too. It garnered huge network ratings with an estimated 44 million people watching (about three times the usual audience) and DeGeneres won a Primetime Emmy for writing. Laura B. notes that “[a]ccording to GLAAD, DeGeneres is Hollywood’s first major television superstar to come out.” Despite all of this, Ellen was cancelled a year later.
In a recent interview with Dax Shepard, DeGeneres describes coming out, noting the cultural zeitgeist of the time. She describes the deeply emotional aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s death, which resulted from a violent, anti-gay attack in Wyoming, about year after she came out. “I went to the steps of Washington and spoke out and basically in tears was saying, ‘This is why I did what I did, to hope that this would change the world.’ I mean that was stupid and naive of me to think that I could actually make that kind of impact in the world just by coming out.”
Despite DeGeneres’s sorrow that night, she was an example and beacon of hope for many in the days and weeks following Shepard’s death. In her deeply personal narrative essay “The Week Matthew Shepard Died,” women’s history professor Bonnie J. Morris describes the scene of a vigil, as nine thousand people gathered to protest and mourn Shepard’s gruesome death: “[t]he crowd is screaming: ELLEN, ELLEN. She grabs the mic and bursts into tears…Ellen begins, ‘I am so pissed off. I can’t stop crying.’”
Morris quotes DeGeneres: “‘Just when they thought I’d go away,’ Ellen reminds us of her cancelled show; ‘I’m angry because this is what I was trying to stop. This is what I was trying to DO!’”
At the end of Laura B.’s article, the journal includes a callout box listing eleven “gay characters on the tube” in 1997. Many of these characters were superfluous at best and comic relief at worst. More than twenty years later, it would be hard to even quantify such a list, much less need to. More so, it shows the lasting historical importance of DeGeneres’ decision: shining a beacon of hope in real life, and setting a precedent for future programming.