We are in the midst of a health crisis the likes of which no living American has seen as well as an impending economic disaster, a looming national election that will undoubtedly change our world, and the critical Black Lives Matter movement. And some members of our LGBTQ+ community seem to be focusing on – Ellen DeGeneres. Really? The focus on her troubles, accusations surrounding her, sensationalistic comments about her behavior, and the detectable disloyalty towards DeGeneres, are quite disturbing.
This piece is not about whether the allegations being leveled against her are true or not, nor whether there are individuals who have been harmed in any way. I do not know the level of truth, and neither do you. At this point, it is reported that the allegations are being researched, which is appropriate.
I do, however, wonder why this case, at this time, and this particular person. DeGeneres is an out and proud lesbian, arguably the most recognized member of our community for many years, as a TV star with her own comedy show, a stand-up comedian, a talk-show host, a producer, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist.
Currently, Ellen is on TV every day. Sometimes when we think we “know” an important celebrity, there is much more to learn about the trials and heartache of said individual. Ellen is a good example of someone from our community who had a quick rise, a plateau, a devastating fall (because she came out in her sitcom’s infamous Puppy Episode), and then a resurgence. At the time of her nationally televised coming out, her world exploded in sadness, anger and depression. Here’s a bit about Louisiana native, Ellen DeGeneres.
Ellen was born in Metairie, and attended Grace King High School in Metairie for a while before graduating from a high school in Atlanta, Texas, where she had moved with her mother and stepfather. She then moved back and went to the University of New Orleans for a semester, before dropping out to pursue her dream of being a stand-up comedian. Ellen held many jobs while she was trying to get a break in show business, working as a waitress, bartender, and house painter, while she played a few local coffeehouses and clubs in the New Orleans area.
After her stand-up career began in the early 1980s, Ellen was invited to perform on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1986. It was a different time, unsafe and untrustworthy for many who were out in the LGBTQ community. Even seemingly liberal Hollywood was unsafe, as it turned out for Ellen.
Ellen landed a part in the new ABC series These Friends of Mine in 1994. It was renamed Ellen a year later after she was made the star. As the star, Ellen decided she would lobby the network to allow her to personally embrace her sexual identity and come out, both in real life and as the character, during the 1997 season.
On April 30, 1997, that’s exactly what happened. People at ABC approved the coming out episode, and held it in secret for a while so it would be a surprise (hence its misleading title, The Puppy Episode). If you’ve never seen it, watch it on YouTube, for its place in history and its pure entertainment value.
Important people supported Ellen, and several played cameos in the episode, like Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, Melissa Etheridge, and Laura Dern, who played a lesbian and Ellen’s love interest. You may still recall the scene at the airport when Ellen professes her feelings to Susan (Dern), over an open microphone, whispering loudly “I’m gay”. That whisper was heard around the world as an estimated 42 million viewers were watching.
Everything changed that night for the LGBTQ community, for television, and for Ellen. Ellen made it one more season, even though that episode yielded many accolades and awards. After the show was cancelled, she could not get work for a few years at the same level. Incidentally, Dern, because she played a lesbian on the show, has said that she was out of work for a year and a half, but nevertheless called it an “extraordinary experience and opportunity.” Very difficult, dangerous time.
That was the late 1990’s. Ellen lost money, a source of income, a relationship, and became the target for many anti-gay groups. She was well known; why not attack her because she had the audacity to come out, to share her identity. She must have terrified those people.
Ellen received death threats. Bomb scares occurred at her studio. Hate mail was heavy. Both Reverend Jerry Falwell and televangelist Pat Robertson joined others in signing a letter that accused the show of acting as a “blatant attempt to promote homosexuality.”
Right-wing groups like the American Family Association pressured ABC to drop the storyline and asked sponsors not to advertise on Ellen for the coming out episode. Two occasional advertisers, J. C. Penney and Chrysler decided not to buy time. Eventually, DeGeneres lost her show and, it seemed, her career.
Not long after, there was a new and exciting show. Will & Grace became a huge hit. Was that because it was about gay men and therefore ok? Gender bias has historically been influential in our community.
People commented that Will and Grace was a groundbreaking show for our LGBTQ community. In my opinion, that’s not at all true. If there had not been the Ellen episode where the word “gay” was used in a natural, personal way, and the last season of Ellen which was about a lesbian out in the world, there would be no Will and Grace.
Since Ellen ended, having gay characters and actors on shows, like Six Feet Under, Queer Eye, Glee, Modern Family, Pose and many more, has become a regular part of the TV landscape. Ellen DeGeneres’ courage, bravery and commitment to the LGBTQ community has allowed so many progressive things throughout the past 20-plus years. And the good news? The Ellen DeGeneres Show started in 2003, and we all know the success it has reached. She is our first and most lasting out gay person, a lesbian known throughout the world.
Given the sacrifice and strength Ellen has shown us, I think we owe her some gratitude and just a bit of loyalty. At least, do not be so quick to indict her. There is a world that will do just that, simply because she’s out, a woman, a lesbian, and rich.
This is not a defense of anyone’s actions. What comes out, will hopefully be the truth, and, if necessary, will be repaired. Atonement needs to be real.
Rather, this is an attempt to share information on someone we all think we know, whom we may not know much about at all. I remember with pride the ceremony when Barack Obama placed the medal and ribbon over Ellen DeGeneres’ head, awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That was a good moment. I’m used to giving people the benefit of the doubt. It usually works out pretty well.
Stay well, stay safe, and wear a MASK please.