When Ellen Morgan, the character Ellen DeGeneres played on her sitcom Ellen, came out as gay on the show's April 30, 1997, episode, it sent shockwaves through the television industry. Up to that point, only a handful of gay characters had been seen on television, and none of these were series leads. In addition to her character coming out in the episode, DeGeneres also publicly shared that she was gay. The groundbreaking storyline, and DeGeneres' reveal of her own sexuality, ended up having a great impact on LGBTQ performers, shows that followed Ellen and society as a whole.
Almost a year of preparation went into the episode
Preparations for the character of Ellen Morgan to come out as gay on the series Ellen began in May 1996, when DeGeneres, who played the role, discussed the potential storyline with the show's writers. At the time, DeGeneres also revealed that she intended to come out publicly as well. In addition to being a step that would let DeGeneres be honest about her own sexuality, there was hope that addressing the fictional Ellen's sexual preferences might provide direction for the TV series, and explain why the character lacked chemistry with male romantic partners.
In order to become the first TV series to have a lead character announce she was gay, the network needed to be in agreement. Yet when the subject was initially broached one executive reportedly wanted Ellen Morgan to get a puppy instead, according to People. The network ended up agreeing to air the storyline but the earlier exchange inspired the episode's title: "The Puppy Episode."
“It was called ‘The Puppy Episode’ because we wanted to keep it a secret until it aired and because ‘Ellen Throws Her Career Away’ seemed too on the nose,” DeGeneres told People.
According to Entertainment Weekly, DeGeneres sometimes made jokes about the upcoming storyline, saying her character was going to reveal she was Lebanese, or that a role named Les Bian was being added to the show. But when it was time to make the episode, things got serious. Scripts were produced on red paper with black ink (a combination that was difficult to photocopy) and needed to be shredded or returned to a studio safe by the end of the day. DeGeneres later said of the experience, "It was like we were spies or something," she told Page Six.
The coming-out episode received support and faced backlash
Many people were thrilled when news spread about Ellen's coming out episode. Some sent in letters of gratitude and appreciation. Supportive celebrities took roles in the show: Oprah Winfrey played the fictional Ellen's therapist and Laura Dern appeared as a potential love interest. Others, including Melissa Etheridge, Demi Moore and Billy Bob Thornton, made appearances, and even more stars wanted to be in the episode but there just weren't enough parts to go around according to Vanity Fair.
Yet the coming-out episode also faced a backlash. As word of "The Puppy Episode" spread, hate mail poured into Ellen's offices. Reverend Jerry Falwell and televangelist Pat Robertson publicly mocked DeGeneres as "Ellen DeGenerate" and joined others in signing a letter that decried the show as a "blatant attempt to promote homosexuality." At one point a bomb threat was called into the studio. DeGeneres told Page Six in 2017, "I had no idea the amount of hate. I had no idea that there would be death threats or a bomb scare. It was a really scary time."
Some advertisers withdrew from the episode. A Chrysler spokesperson told The New York Times, "It's a business decision about trying to stay out of the fray. The environment around this is so angry we feel we lose no matter what we do." JCPenney, Domino's Pizza and McDonald's joined the car company in not airing ads. The Human Rights Campaign and a cruise line that focused on a lesbian clientele tried to buy spots instead, but ABC declined their ads.
DeGeneres' personal life was deeply affected by the episode
In the lead-up to "The Puppy Episode," DeGeneres became more open about her own sexuality, a topic she'd previously tried to keep private. She went out with her then-partner, actress Anne Heche. Time magazine's April 14, 1997, cover featured a photo of DeGeneres with the words, "Yep, I'm Gay." DeGeneres also talked about coming out as gay with Diane Sawyer and on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
When Winfrey asked why it was necessary for both DeGeneres and her character to come out, DeGeneres answered simply, "Because it's okay." In the same interview, she explained, "I realized that as long as I had this secret that I worried about all the time that it made it look like something was wrong." Many audience members applauded DeGeneres, but Winfrey's show also featured some denunciations. A woman complained about having to explain what "gay" was to her ten-year-old when they spotted the Time cover while shopping. One man told DeGeneres his objections to homosexuality were Biblical, stating, "It's sin. It's no different than adultery, it's no different than, you know, robbing, stealing, lying, cheating."
Though an ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, decided not to broadcast Ellen's coming out episode, the show still had more than forty million viewers, far surpassing previous ratings. "The Puppy Episode" also went on to receive a Peabody and an Emmy Award. Ellen returned the next year ready to tell stories about a gay woman — but the show was forced to add parental advisory warnings when Ellen Morgan had a same-sex kiss. According to ABC's president at the time, viewership ended up declining because the show "became a program about a lead character who was gay every single week." The comedy was canceled in 1998.
The coming out episode broke barriers, though it took time
Despite the cancellation, a barrier had been broken. Soon after Ellen went off the air, Will & Grace, a sitcom about a gay man and a straight woman who were best friends, launched and became a hit. Since Ellen ended, having gay characters and actors on shows — like Six Feet Under, Modern Family, Pose and many more — has become a regular part of the TV landscape. People in the public eye also appreciated DeGeneres's coming out. Jane Lynch, of Glee fame, once told DeGeneres, "It made it so much easier for me, what you did." Good Morning America's Robin Roberts said to DeGeneres in 2019, "Can I say thank you for what you bravely did more than 20 years ago?"
Her actions did lead to a low point in DeGeneres' career, but fortunately, it was temporary. In 2003, she had a star turn as forgetful fish Dory in the animated film Finding Nemo. That same year marked the debut of her hugely successful talk show. Whereas in 1997 advertisers had balked at backing DeGeneres' sitcom, a decade later she was hired by CoverGirl for a promotional campaign. And though JCPenney had declined to have its commercials on "The Puppy Episode," in 2012, DeGeneres was selected as a spokesperson for the chain. She's also found lasting love with actress Portia de Rossi, whom she wed in 2008.
DeGeneres has stated that improving attitudes towards gay rights is not what motivated her. In a 2014 interview with People, she explained, "What I did, I want to say it was brave, because it was, but it was mainly for me. No human being should live with a lie or a secret that they feel bad or shame about." But DeGeneres did have a wide impact. A 2015 poll named her the most influential figure in making Americans more accepting of gay rights. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded DeGeneres the Medal of Freedom. The remarks as she received the honor stated, "At a pivotal moment, her courage and candor helped change the minds of millions of Americans, accelerating our nation's constant drive toward equality and acceptance for all."