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Ellen Degeneres Reflects on Coming Out 20 Years Ago: It Was More Important Than My Career

Ellen Degeneres Coming Out Memory
Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

That gay men and women have any representation at all on primetime television is, in part, a credit to Ellen Degeneres, who bravely sacrificed her career to come out on her sitcom Ellen in 1997. Twenty years after uttering “I’m gay” in the now-famous “Puppy Episode,” Degeneres recalls how things got much worse before they got better.

In an interview with The Associated PressDegeneres remembers making the choice to declare her sexuality publicly, and said there was no particular pressure other than she could feel shame building.

“No matter how many times I tried to rationalize that I didn’t need anyone to know, I knew that it was a secret. And I knew that there was a possibility that people would hate me for the simple fact that no matter how much they loved my comedy or my show, but they might hate me if they knew I was gay,” she says. “It became more important to me than my career. I suddenly said, “Why am I being, you know, ashamed of who I am just to be successful and famous in society’s eyes?” And then I thought, the character on the show is clearly struggling.”

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So, she came clean in an episode titled “The Puppy Episode,” so-called because executives initially pushed back on her coming-out arc, and suggested Ellen’s character adopt a puppy, instead. Degeneres said there was an immediate deluge of criticism that hit her, co-star Laura Dern and Oprah Winfrey, who interviewed Degeneres soon after the episode aired.

“Obviously, that’s why a lot of people don’t come out, because there’s a very loud and clear message that a lot of people don’t understand it (being gay), and because they don’t understand it they fear, and because they fear it they hate it,” she says. “But 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.”

Still, Degeneres refused to submit to fear, and slowly chipped away against homophobia. Now, once again one of TV’s most identifiable (and beloved) figures, she explains that she’s encouraged by how far public attitudes toward the LGBT community have come. Still, there’s a long way to go, she says.

“Nobody really understood how dark it got for me,” she says. “I was really, really in a deep depression. I had never been so down in my life. I was depressed. I was broke. I felt attacked. It was everything that you just fear in life, like nobody loving you. For me to crawl out of that and to accomplish what I’ve accomplished with the show and with my brand and with my production company, and to succeed after all that makes me realize that no matter how dark something gets, and no matter how bad something gets, that there’s always a possibility of good coming from it.”

Celebs Who Have Very Bravely Come Out:

Next: Ellen Degeneres Remembers Ridicule After Coming Out

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