'Ellen's' Coming Out, 20 Years Later: GLAAD President on the Importance of Freedom (Guest Column)

Sarah Kate Ellis opens up about how Ellen DeGeneres' "watershed moment" helped pave the way for inclusion and acceptance.
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Twenty years ago, on April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on her ABC sitcom. It was a groundbreaking moment on the small screen that was accompanied by the comedian-actress and now daytime host's own personal declaration on the cover of Time Magazine that, she, too, was gay. Below, GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis writes about the impact Ellen's coming out had on her and the country alike.

I'll never forget when Ellen DeGeneres uttered those famous words on her ABC sitcom Ellen: "I'm gay." Twenty years ago this week I sat in a crowded New York apartment, watching the episode with a group of lesbian friends who clapped and cheered when Ellen said "I'm gay." One of them shouted "Me too!" At the time, I wasn't out at work or to my parents, so my response to Ellen's moment was a bit more reserved. I silently thought one word: freedom.

We weren't the only group of friends having a viewing party to celebrate this historic moment. LGBTQ people came together to watch and celebrate at viewing parties all over the country. Unbeknownst to me at the time, GLAAD hosted one of them in the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, as a response to the local affiliate's decision not to air the episode. The station felt that a person being gay was an "inappropriate theme" for advertisers and viewers. Ellen's sitcom aired elsewhere with a warning and several advertisers dropped out. GLAAD started conversations with networks about the unnecessary warning and with corporations about standing by all consumers. I imagine the GLAAD leadership at the time was similarly thinking: freedom.

Ellen's career was not helped immediately by all of the press attention she received for coming out, but she earned a spot in history and changed the game for all of us. Hollywood was — and often times still is — scared of being "first" or "controversial" so although Ellen's show was canceled, it burst open the door for shows like NBC's Will and Grace, Showtime's The L Word and Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (two of which are being rebooted now). Ellen's leadership moved LGBTQ characters beyond stereotypical supporting characters who merely served to further a straight character's storyline.

Ellen's Time Magazine cover was viewed in supermarkets everywhere and her sitcom reached millions of homes. This was a watershed moment for LGBTQ visibility and social progress in our country. It was also a watershed moment for me — I soon came out to my Irish-Catholic parents and my employer. When I came out, my conservative father said "like Ellen?" Ellen's visibility made the words "gay" and "lesbian" a bit less scary and, because of Ellen, women like me felt empowered to speak our truth. What people see in the media has a huge impact on how they treat others, and the decisions made every day in schools, government and at the voting box.

I witnessed the power of entertainment and news media in changing hearts and minds and it started me on a career in media where today I serve as president and CEO of GLAAD, the world's largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization.

What a difference two decades makes. Today, advertisers are jockeying to advertise on Ellen's family-friendly talk show and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom just last year. GLAAD's Where We Are on TV report, which analyzes LGBTQ representation on television, showed that the 2016-17 television season had the highest percentage of LGBTQ series regulars ever.

Progress to be sure, but that's still only 4.8 percent of characters, and the majority of those are white and male. Transgender people and people of color are sorely under-represented, but I can't imagine where we would be if Ellen's "The Puppy Episode" hadn't aired.

The importance of fair and accurate LGBTQ portrayals in the media cannot be understated. The battle for inclusion is far from over. This week, GLAAD was victorious in a campaign to get the MPAA to change the rating of the Weinstein Co.'s film 3 Generations, the first major motion picture about a transgender teen. Just like 20 years ago, LGBTQ issues were deemed "inappropriate" and, just like 20 years ago, GLAAD was there to make sure these culture-changing stories reached the widest audience possible.

I know firsthand that when we don't see ourselves, it sends the message that we don't matter and that we don't exist.

Ellen showed our community and the world that our stories can be on the front lines to moving LGBTQ acceptance forward. Ellen's powerful and undeniable mark on the cultural landscape has shaped the past 20 years of LGBTQ media representation and will continue to do so for decades to come.

As LGBTQ visibility begins to slip under the new administration, we all need to be Ellens: boldly sharing our stories and speaking our truth.

Sarah Kate Ellis is the president of GLAAD.

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