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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.
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