This week marks a major milestone in television history. Two decades ago, Ellen DeGeneres did what was then totally unthinkable on her primetime sitcom: announced that she was gay. Though many things have changed in society since then, the 20th anniversary of the Ellen coming out episode reminds us that this moment is just as important today as it was two decades. In just one episode, Ellen would prove to change the landscape of TV forever.
In 1997, very shortly after coming out in real life, DeGeneres made the polarizing decision to bring the same truth to her eponymous, on-screen character, Ellen Morgan. "The Puppy Episode," as it was titled to keep the story from going public prior to its airing on April 30, would mark one of the first times that a main character made such an announcement on primetime TV. In the episode, DeGeneres' character tries to find the words to tell a friend, played by Laura Dern, of her sexual orientation. After a brief bit of scrambling, she finally blurts out, "Susan, I'm gay."
At that time, the moment was met with great criticism, prompting ABC to add a parental advisory warning to the opening credits of every episode of the show that aired thereafter. Despite the controversy that ensued, the episode would also garner an insurmountable amount of praise, winning the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series that year. However, Ellen would ultimately be canceled just a season later.
I believe that, perhaps, the world wasn't quite ready for the revolution that DeGeneres was igniting on television. But it was too late; the conversation already began. Slowly but surely, the fortitude that fans, such as myself, saw on TV that evening would slowly seep into real life, allowing viewers to find the strength to begin living their own authentic existences. It was a moment that I believe impacted the lives of many who may have thought that they were alone in their struggles, and found in DeGeneres' voice to be a beacon of hope.
During a recent monologue on her daytime talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the comedian addressed the triumph that followed what she reveals as the "hardest thing" she's ever faced. She tearfully explained,
In true DeGeneres tradition, she concluded, "I thank you and celebrate you all with this dance."
The 59-year-old actor's activism in the LGBTQ community over the years has not gone unnoticed. In 2016, DeGeneres received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Barack Obama.
Although her sitcom may have been canceled in 1998, DeGeneres' announcement would go on to make way for LGBTQ roles on television and has been credited for laying the groundwork for many other sitcoms to follow, such as Will & Grace, Brothers and Sisters, Modern Family, and Orange is the New Black.
The fight for equality has been long and still continues, but DeGeneres' monumental moment 20 years ago would ultimately change the entire landscape of television and media as a whole. It helped establish that living life without apology, parental advisory, or shame can truly bring you happiness.