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OPINION: 'Cancel Ellen if you want. But her legacy isn't going anywhere.'

Living in a time when gay people announce they’re getting married or having babies and no one bats an eyelid, it might be hard to appreciate what a big deal it was when Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay in 1997. But it was a big deal. A very, very big deal.

DeGeneres made a name for herself as a stand-up comedian in the 1980s. Back then, the people close to her were aware of her sexuality. She hung out at a local lesbian bar in New Orleans, and when she moved to San Francisco in 1984, she told her manager Bob Fisher she was gay. 

"She was very relieved it wasn't an issue," he told Newsweek. "I already knew Ellen was gay. It was sort of taken for granted."

Watch: Ellen's coming out interview on Oprah. Post continues below.


Video via The Oprah Winfrey Show

Like a lot of the biggest stand-up comedy stars of the 1990s, DeGeneres was given her own sitcom, Ellen. She played a character called Ellen Morgan, and her show was referred to as the "female Seinfeld". But Ellen was a bit lost when it came to the main character’s relationships. Ellen Morgan never found a man she really connected with. Network executives suggested that maybe she should get a puppy.

Although DeGeneres' staff at the sitcom knew she was gay, she didn’t really want to go public about it. As she later told Oprah Winfrey, she didn’t feel like it was anyone’s business who she was dating. Then she changed her mind.

"I realised that as long as I had this secret that I worried about all the time, that made it look like something was wrong," she said.

DeGeneres convinced network executives to let her character come out, even though she knew it would cost her personally.   

"I said, 'I’m going to lose the career. Like, you can just put another show on. It’s my show to lose' – even though it wasn’t my show," she told the podcast Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard recently. 

In May 1996, DeGeneres invited her staff to her home and told them that she was going to come out on the show and in real life. There had been gay characters on shows such as Melrose Place, but there hadn’t been a show with a gay leading character. Very few celebrities were openly gay, and public support for gay marriage was at just 27 per cent. 

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Executive producer Mark Driscoll remembers being excited at the impact it could have.

"Ellen was so loved by audiences, she was so much the girl next door and so sweet," he told Vanity Fair. "She was the perfect person to dispel people’s fears about what a gay woman might be like."

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud, Mamamia’s podcast with what women are talking about this week. Post continues below.

The coming-out process was very carefully planned. The writers sprinkled jokes throughout Ellen’s fourth season. In one scene, Ellen shouted, "I was in the closet," as she walked out of an actual closet. 

The ground-breaking coming-out episode, titled 'The Puppy Episode', was filmed in March 1997, with an all-star guest cast. Oprah Winfrey played Ellen’s therapist, Laura Dern played her love interest Susan, and Billy Bob Thornton and Demi Moore were in a dream sequence.

Executive producer Dava Savel tells Vanity Fair that Winfrey cried as she watched her scenes back on the monitor. 

"The tears just flowed down her cheeks and she said, 'I’m so proud to be a part of this. I’m so proud.'"

The big moment has Ellen at an airport, coming out to Susan. 

"Why can’t I just say the truth, be who I am?" she asks, before accidentally leaning on a microphone button and broadcasting to the entire airport, "I’m gay."

The studio audience erupts in cheers, as Dern hugs DeGeneres.

The episode was due to air in April 1997, and the buzz around it was huge. Gay groups organised "Come Out With Ellen" parties. DeGeneres’ publicist, Jill Lessard, asked to be an extra in the episode and then decided to come out as gay herself.

"I just got swept up in the moment," she told Newsweek.

Ellen DeGeneres in 1997. Image: Getty. 

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But not everyone was happy. 

Co-star Joely Fisher says they had to check the set for bombs before filming because of all the death threats they were getting. Some companies chose not to advertise in that episode, or not to advertise in the series at all. Televangelist Jerry Falwell labelled DeGeneres "Ellen DeGenerate".

She laughed him off. "Really? He called me that? Ellen DeGenerate? I've been getting that since the fourth grade."

DeGeneres did a couple of interviews, including one with Winfrey, to coincide with the episode going to air. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the words, "Yep, I’m gay."

The episode was watched by 44 million people. But afterwards, the show’s ratings went into a slide. It was axed, as DeGeneres had predicted. She told Shepard she was looked at as “a failure” in the business and suffered depression.

“No one would touch me. I had no agent, I had no possibility of a job, I had nothing.”

Despite the axing of her sitcom, Ellen’s decision to come out had a huge impact on the industry. It paved the way for shows like Will & Grace to make it to air, and for other celebrities to come out. 

"It made it so much easier for me, what you did," Glee’s Jane Lynch once told DeGeneres. 

In 2018, Variety named DeGeneres as the person who has done more than any other celebrity or public figure to influence Americans' attitudes to gay rights.

DeGeneres still remembers the people who wrote to her after she came out, telling her how much it meant to them. 

"I remember the first letter that I got where somebody said that I saved their life, that they were going to kill themselves and they didn’t because of what I did," she told Winfrey.

Before we all cancel DeGeneres for being mean, and refusing to make eye contact or smile, and not living up to her super-nice talk show persona, let’s just remember how brave she was back in 1997. Let’s remember the risk she took, the abuse she suffered, and what she did for the gay community. That’s her legacy. 

Feature Image: Getty.

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