In the early years of “gay visibility” in the U.S. media most stories were centered on homosexual men, homosexual women on the other hand were largely ignored. Nevertheless, this started to change. In today’s post, I would like to take a look at the coming-out story of comedian, TV host and actress Ellen DeGenerese, who came out to the public in 1997.
During the time of her coming out, Ellen DeGeneres played the character “Ellen Morgan” on the primetime ABC sitcom Ellen. In September of 1996, several of the countries news outlets covered stories speculating the main character in the show, “Ellen Morgan”, might come out as a lesbian in one of the up-coming episodes (Streitmatter, 104). For instance, the Los Angeles Times published a story on September 14, 1996, titled “Stepping Out?”, in which they speculate about the sitcoms main characters up-coming revelation (Snow, 1996). According to the Los Angeles Times article, insiders had confirmed that the possibility was being discussed but that no final decision had been made yet. In the following weeks, many of the other major news outlets in the country started to speculate about the up-coming changes on the show. The topic was so widely discussed and had great significance, because the coming out of “Ellen” in the show would make her the first lesbian main character on a primetime show on U.S. television. There had been gay characters on television before, but most of them had supporting or secondary roles only. “In March 1997, ABC announced that, yes, Ellen’s lead character would , indeed, come out as a gay woman during the episode scheduled to air at 9 p.M. on April 30 – at the end of sweeps month” (Streitmatter, 105). After the “mystery” was solved, the media now started to examine the reasons that were driving ABC to decide to have the lead character come out of the closet. As pointed out by Streitmatter in his book From Perverts to Fab Five, it was speculated that ABC tried to bring up the show’s ratings which went down significantly since season one (2009). This topic was so widely discussed in the media before the “coming out” episode aired, but lead actress Ellen DeGenres, seemed to avoid the media and didn’t talk much about the up-coming changes in the sitcom. Several magazines and newspapers started to speculate on the actress own sexuality and rumors of her personal coming out started to emerge.
Then the speculations finally came to an end when Ellen DeGenrese gave an exclusive interview to Time Magazine in 1997 which was published as the cover story. In the interview, DeGenerese publicly came out as a lesbian. In the following weeks, she gave lots of interviews. In one interview with Diane Sawyer for a segment of 20/20, DeGenerese said about her coming out experience:
“This had been the most freeing experience of my professional life, I don’t have to worry anymore about some reporters trying to find out information. I don’t have anything to be scared of, which outweighs whatever elese happens in my career” (20/20, 1997).
Besides all the interview follwing her coming out, she also appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where she shared her very personal and emotional story. Below is a short clip of the opening from this specific episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Some critics saw the whole coming-out story as driven solely by the interest to raise the ratings for the TV show, which had lost lots of viewers throughout its first 3 seasons. In addition, Ellen was publicly criticized by several church groups and other organization which are hostile towards homosexuals. Nevertheless, this could not diminish the positive and supportive headlines following her comming and the growing support towards homosexuals in Hollywood and society in general.
“After all the hype and exploitation surrounding the actress Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Morgan, the woman she plays on television, it was easy to lose sight of what actually was taking place on ABC last night. The “coming out” of the title character on “Ellen” was accomplished with wit and poignancy, which should help defuse the antagonism toward homosexuals still prevalent in society” (New York Times, 1997).
As pointed out by Streitmatter, the coming out of “Ellen Morgan” in the TV show and Ellen DeGenerese can be considered to be a milestone in TV history, as Ellen was the first TV show with a lesbian as its lead character. In contrast to earlier coverage on gays and lesbians, the show portrayed homosexuals in a positive light and as being completely normal people. Certainly, the show played an important role in the growing support for gays and lesbians in society. According to Streitmatter, “a number of major Hollywood stars became gay activists by joining the cast of Ellen either for the coming-out episode or for later segments of the history-making series. Oprah Winfrey, Hellen Hunt, and Demi Moore were among the names on the impressive list of celebreties who steped up to the plate and did their part to adavance the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement” (Streitmatter, 114).
I thought it was very interesting to take a close look at Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out story. I have watched her current show before and I knew that she is a lesbian, but I had not idea about this significant story surrounding her public coming-out. Certainly, the fact that Ellen shared her story with the public helped to foster a more positive perception of homosexuals in society and emphasized that homosexuals are just “normal” people like everyone else in society. Her story also emphasized how difficult the coming-out process can be, especially if you are in the public eye like Ellen. As she stated in one of her interviews after the coming-out, she felt very relieved after it was out because she doesn’t have to hide her true-self anymore.