Yep, Ellen came out 20 years ago — and changed the world

Peabody Awards

Then on April 30, 1997, Ellen Morgan came out to an entire airport of people in DeGeneres’s second milestone moment, with 42 million people tuned in, and sponsors dropping out. Brands including J.C. Penney and Chrysler pulled their commercials from the episode; Wendy’s pulled out of sponsoring Ellen all together. ABC canceled the show in 1998, as the ratings plummeted from this moment forward and never bounced back.

And maybe that was a good thing, because she followed it up with a talk show that better suits her and her personality. What is also interesting is the impact her coming out had, not just on celebrities who came out after Ellen like Jane Lynch, Ellen Page, Chely Wright, Jessie Smollett and so many, many more, but how her courageous act resonated with everyday Americans: a poll by Variety in 2015 revealed DeGeneres did more to influence attitudes about gay rights than any other celebrity or public figure ever.

Revisiting that time today, with the buildup of suspense both on the show and in real life, seems as if it is from a long ago age, as ancient to us as the annoying, awful sound of dial-up internet.

But because she took the step of owning her identity, DeGeneres paved a way forward for every  lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender person who followed her, including me. If anything, the general consensus has evolved so much that someone coming out usually receives a big “so what?” from the media. Sure, people still come out, both celebrities and regular folks, and then they go have lunch or something. It’s just not the big deal it once was, at least, in many parts of America.

Ellen DeGeneres is still the great gay demon that will convert far right Christian children and make them gay, and I will infect them with my trans cooties, and together we shall all worship Satan. To them, it doesn’t matter what happened in 1997 or 2017 because in their religiously brainwashed minds it’s still 1617. Pray for them, I say.

I also say the final frontier is the wide gay world of sports, where we know there are closeted men playing for pro teams who fear losing millions of dollars and costing their team millions of fans.



Now, I do have a small bone to pick with DeGeneres, about something she told Time that was incredibly offensive but, given it was 1997, was how she felt at that time.

DeGeneres told the magazine she came out both “selfishly for myself and because I thought it was a great thing for the show, which desperately needed a point of view. If other people come out, that’s fine.”

And that is fine. Unlike Caitlyn Jenner, she did not set out to be some kind of role model, even though she became one. And incidentally Jenner is reportedly still pissed at DeGeneres, blaming her for why she is so widely disliked in the LGBT community.

But the beef I have with DeGeneres isn’t her treatment of Jenner but something else she said to Time, something that has faded away over two decades. She said, in what we must presume was a serious comment and not some joke, that she did not want “dykes on bikes or these men dressed as women… representing the entire gay community.”

Let’s also presume she was speaking about butch lesbians and drag queens, not transgender women, since we all know trans women are women, not men.

Even so, I feel that the diversity of the LGBTQ community is what makes us so powerful, including “dykes on bikes” and drag performers, both kings and queens. I can relate to her desire, in 1997, to be seen as “normal,” which is understandable, and I think if anything the success of her wildly popular talk show reveals her to be accepting of the entire spectrum of humanity from straight to gay to trans to bi to gender non-conforming.

Like me, and so many of us who came out to acclaim only to find it fade away, DeGeneres rebounded, as President Barack Obama recalled in November 2016:

“She did pay a price… for a pretty long stretch of time, even in Hollywood. And yet today, every day in every way, Ellen counters what too often divides us, with the countless things that bind us together, and inspires us to be better, one joke, one dance at a time.”

No one could ever pay tribute to DeGeneres better than President Obama did when he presented her with the Medal of Freedom. 

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