On April 30, 1997, local ABC affiliate WBMA in Birmingham, Alabama, made a last-minute change to its primetime lineup. The 8 p.m. slot normally reserved for the sitcom Ellen starring comedian Ellen DeGeneres was being preempted because her character on the show, Ellen Morgan, was about to come out as gay—a plot point that the station considered inappropriate for the family viewing hour.
The decision to black out the program was uncommon but indicative of the controversy that surrounded the actress’s decision to be transparent about her sexuality both on and off the screen. A Time magazine cover story that month with DeGeneres formally announcing her sexuality was seen as a potentially career-threatening move. Chrysler and J.C. Penney opted not to buy commercial time for the episode; some religious leaders condemned the “gay-affirming” nature of the storyline. An otherwise innocuous television show suddenly became a barometer for public tolerance of the LGBTQ+ community.
Despite the plethora of gay characters on television, Ellen Morgan would be the first leading character to come out. How radical was it? In a sign of the times, ABC initially balked at the idea; one network exec even suggested that the character experience a transformative personal change by getting a puppy instead.
For decades, television had struggled to deal with network and sponsorship anxieties over any depiction of sexuality. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy slept in separate beds, as did many fictional couples of the 1950s; frank discussion of sex was practically verboten, a kind of self-inflicted censorship that was eventually loosened for straight relationships but remained in place for gay couples.
It wasn’t until 1972 that a recurring gay character, bar patron Peter Panama (Vincent Schiavelli) on ABC’s The Corner Bar, was regularly seen on television; it was four years later that a gay couple on producer Norman Lear’s Hot l Baltimore appeared. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Barney Miller depicted several gay characters in cooperation with the National Gay Task Force advocacy group to avoid stereotyped portrayals.
While these shows made headway in depicting a more diverse television population, it was still rare to have gay leading characters. In NBC’s Love, Sidney (1981-1983) with Tony Randall, the titular character was gay but his lifestyle rarely warranted mention. Depictions of affection were sporadic at best and often interpreted as something lurid, as in the case of same-sex kissing on shows like L.A. Law, Roseanne, and Melrose Place.
That Ellen DeGeneres would come out both in her private life and as a leading character on TV was therefore without precedent. A native of Metairie, Louisiana, DeGeneres began performing on stage in 1981 and started drawing attention for her idiosyncratic delivery style. After being endorsed by Jay Leno, DeGeneres was scouted and booked for an appearance on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, at the time seen as a major career break for comics.
The 1990s were also a time when success in stand-up often led to a sitcom offer, a move that had worked for Jerry Seinfeld. These Friends of Mine premiered on ABC in 1994 and depicted DeGeneres as Ellen Morgan, a Los Angeles bookstore owner navigating single life as a thirtysomething. (To avoid confusion with Friends, the show’s title was changed to Ellen the following season.)
The show was a modest hit for ABC and helped to raise DeGeneres’s profile, though feature film efforts—like 1996’s Mr. Wrong—never seemed to properly utilize her comic persona to any great effect. Privately, DeGeneres was also beginning to feel as though it might be time to stop dancing around the issue of her own sexuality. And if she came out, she reasoned, then Ellen Morgan should, too.
By the beginning of the show’s fourth season, rumors began to swirl that Ellen Morgan may come out of the closet: ABC was using terms like “self-discovery” and “radical” to describe character changes that were coming. On talk shows, DeGeneres would contort herself around the question, saying that perhaps Ellen Morgan might declare herself to be “Lebanese.”
Out and the Ordinary
When DeGeneres finally confirmed the speculation with Time in April 1997, she tried to navigate the fine line between maintaining a private life and being cast as a spokesperson for a cultural movement.
“[That] was one of the things when I decided to have my character on the show come out, I knew I was going to have to come out too,” she said. “But I didn’t want to talk about it until the show was done. And you know, I watched my friend Melissa [Etheridge] come out, and she became ‘the lesbian rock star.’ I never wanted to be ‘the lesbian actress.’ I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Ever. I did it for my own truth.”
DeGeneres later said she was cautioned that the move could harm the show, her career, or both. Readers wrote in to Time to express dismay that she had made the announcement; religious leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell started calling her “Ellen Degenerate”; bomb threats made sweeps of the set a necessity; and the ABC affiliate in Birmingham insisted on airing the episode later in the evening, presumably to keep it away from adolescent viewers. When ABC denied that request, they opted not to air it at all.
But there was an equally loud chorus of people who thought the episode was a watershed moment for LGBTQ+ acceptance. Residents of Birmingham who wanted to see the episode attended a party where it was broadcast via satellite; other parties organized by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (now GLAAD) took place in major cities. While some sponsors pulled out, others opted in, paying over $300,000 for a 30-second spot.
In “The Puppy Episode,” so named for the network’s preference that the character just adopt a dog rather than come out, Ellen Morgan struggles to verbalize her sexuality to a character played by guest star Laura Dern. “I mean, why can't I just say … I mean, what is wrong?” Morgan says. “Why, why do I have to be so ashamed? I mean, why can't I just … say the truth, I mean, be who I am. I'm 35 years old, I'm so afraid to tell people, I mean, I just … Susan, I'm gay.”
Ultimately, none of the fears about DeGeneres sabotaging her career were realized. Buoyed by the publicity and guest appearances by Dern, Oprah Winfrey, and Billy Bob Thornton, “The Puppy Episode” was seen by around 44 million viewers, nearly three times the viewership of an average episode of the series, according to Vanity Fair. While Ellen only lasted one more season, its cancellation wasn’t due to the coming out episode, just traditionally middling ratings. DeGeneres later found major success as a voice in Finding Nemo (2003) and as the host of the daytime talk series The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which ran from 2003 to 2022. She was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 for her contributions to promoting LGBTQ+ acceptance. Shows like Will & Grace and Modern Family followed, which had leading gay characters whose sexuality was no big deal. A 2015 study commissioned by Variety and branding analyst Jeetendr Sehdev found that DeGeneres influenced public opinion and acceptance about gay rights more than any other public figure.
DeGeneres reflected on the moment earlier this year on her talk show. “It really goes to show you how important it is to be your authentic self, and how important it is to accept others as their authentic selves,” she said. “I didn't see a lot of people like me on television when I was a kid—Peppermint Patty, of course. As soon as I saw those sensible shoes, I knew. The creator said she wasn't a lesbian, but good grief.”