Here's What Really Happened When Ellen DeGeneres Came Out 20 Years Ago

April 27th 2017

Omri Rolan

In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on television in front of 42 million people 20 years ago, which was a huge deal that left a lasting impression on American culture for years to come.

Most people, especially during that time, likely came out to far less people. Most people probably also remember that DeGeneres came out on Time magazine, while publicly dating Anne Heche.

Ellen DeGeneres Time Cover

Her sitcom persona came out two weeks later on “The Puppy Episode.”

In 2017, we look back at this episode fondly revering DeGeneres for her trailblazing bravery, but she received a lot of backlash, too.

Though it’s common knowledge that coming out almost destroyed her career, even the biggest "Stans" might not know exactly what happened.

So let's break it down:

While some companies saw her coming out episode as a chance to reach new audiences, others (specifically Chrysler Corporation and Wendy’s) decided to pull advertising from the show, according to a New York Times article from 1997.




Following "The Puppy Episode," DeGeneres and the show's network at the time, ABC, were in a constant tug-of-war about the show’s themes, with ABC reportedly demanding that not every episode be gay. ABC caved under pressure from religious groups and protestors outside its studio and put disclaimers before each episode warning parents that the content might not be appropriate for children.


The Media Research Center bought a full page advertisement in Variety shaming ABC and DeGeneres for their “slap in the face to America’s families.”

The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post ran articles calling the episode “opportunistic” and labeling it a “stunt.” Laura Dern, who is not gay, claims she was blacklisted in Hollywood for a year after playing Ellen’s love interest.


As the show entered it’s fifth season, viewers lost interest. Chairman of ABC, Stuart Bloomberg, told Entertainment Weekly that, “as the show became more politicized and issue-oriented," it became less funny and audiences noticed.

Finally, one year after her coming out episode, "Ellen" was canceled.


Her career took a huge hit. It was a long time before she became the world’s most famous animated fish.

It’s also spectacular that a woman who was once criticized for being too affectionate, with her girlfriend at the White House, is now happily (and publicly) married to a woman and appearing on daytime TV in living rooms across America every day.



This year, DeGeneres was also awarded the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by former President Barack Obama. In his speech Obama applauded DeGeneres for her bravery in 1997, saying:

“It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law, just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago.”

DeGenres was the first leading character in a television show to be openly gay, something we still don’t really see today. So while we celebrate DeGeneres for her incredible achievement, we can't take the 20 years of progress since "The Puppy Episode" for granted.

Bravo, Ellen!

Check out what she had to say about the milestone on her daytime TV show in the clip below: