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As David Letterman’s guest on season two of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Ellen DeGeneres opened up about her personal life, including a sexual assault that happened at the hands of her stepfather when she was a teenager and her experience coming out as a gay woman 21 years ago.
The show began with the host praising DeGeneres’ Netflix special, Relatable. “It’s an opus,” he said. “How long did it take you? Tell me 10 years,” he joked. DeGeneres explained that she hadn’t done stand-up in 15 years at that stage, and didn’t think she’d do stand-up ever again after her talk show. “When I get too complacent and I don’t think I’m challenging myself creatively, I choose something to scare me,” she said.
Her agent encouraged her to do stand-up when they were on the way back from the medal of honor ceremony at the White House. Recalling this event, DeGeneres said, “All my life I thought I was extremely weak and scared of everything, and the fact that I took chances and that I took the biggest chance of my life, which was coming out, that everybody told me would ruin my career — and I’m sitting there getting this award from the president of the United States.”
The comedian went on to talk about the shame she once felt in identifying as gay and the lack of media representations that same-sex couples typically receive. Referencing her show being canceled after she came out, Letterman pointed out that the network did not realize that she could create a marketable awareness [about equality.]
Of her childhood, DeGeneres said that she was often mistaken for a boy due to her appearance and tomboyish nature. “The only reason I wanted to be a boy was because I thought it was the only way to be with girls,” she said, noting that her struggle with her sexual identity continued throughout high school.
When she revealed her sexual identity to her parents, DeGeneres recalled crying amid the conversation because it was the first time she had spoken the words “I’m gay” out loud. Her mother researched what it meant to be gay at their local library, DeGeneres said. After “flatlining” and living in Ojai for a while, DeGeneres eventually gained her audience back. Letterman referred to her as a “leader” and an “inspiration.”
Continuing the deep dive into her family life, DeGeneres talked about how, after her very religious parents divorced, her mother remarried “a very bad man” who acted sexually inappropriate with her over several occasions when she was a teenager. “He told me when [my mother] was out of town that he felt a lump in her breast and needed to feel mine,” DeGeneres said, adding that this happened repeatedly and he once bashed her bedroom door to commit the act — she escaped out the window.
DeGeneres told her mother what had happened a few years later, though she stayed with him for 18 more years. “What most women do is we just don’t feel like we have a voice, and this is the first time I’ve talked about this to anyone other than my friends,” the comedian said. “It angers me when victims aren’t believed because we don’t make stuff up. I like men, but there are so many men who get away with so much. It’s time for us to have a voice. It’s time for us to have power.”
Talking about the current social landscape, DeGeneres emphasizes that representation is very different now — same-sex couples who live happy lives are far more visible. She described her wife, Portia De Rossi, as “very funny, she makes me laugh, which is important. We’ve been together 15 years.”
Before leaving the stage, Letterman asked his guest about the possibility of a tour, which DeGeneres did not rule out. “I wouldn’t mind going to a few cities …” the comedian said, considering the future ahead.
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