It’s crazy to think that it has been exactly 20 years since she came out as gay on the cover of Time—a brave, pioneering move that nearly ruined her career forever.
On April 14, 1997, DeGeneres appeared on the cover, accompanied by the text “Yep, I’m Gay.” In the interview, the fiercely private actress explained the decision to come out, the hesitation she felt, and knowing that she would have to after she had her character Ellen Morgan (from her show Ellen) come out as gay, telling Time:
I didn’t want to talk about it until the show was done. And you know, I watched my friend Melissa [Etheridge] come out, and she became “the lesbian rock star.” I never wanted to be “the lesbian actress.” I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Ever. I did it for my own truth.
DeGeneres’ character became the first gay lead character on network television in the US, and was a pretty damn big deal. Sponsors pulled their ads from the show. Her network, ABC, freaked out. Even her co-stars got blacklisted.
It was impossible to imagine then that DeGeneres would become such a beloved, mainstream figure.
Decades later, DeGeneres is still quietly but firmly fighting the good fight. Case in point: she’s back in the headlines because, according to RadarOnline, Caitlyn Jenner allegedly discusses her in her upcoming memoir, criticizing her for challenging Jenner’s views on gay marriage. Back in 2015, Jenner appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and discussed how her opinion on gay marriage has changed over the years, saying:
At first, I was not for it. I thought, ‘I’m a traditionalist.’ I kind of liked tradition, and it’s always been a man and a woman. And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t quite get it.’ But as time has gone on, I think like a lot of people on this issue have really changed their thinking here. I don’t want to stand in front of anybody’s happiness. That’s not my job. If that word ‘marriage’ is really, really that important to you, I can go with it.
At the time, DeGeneres noted Jenner appeared to be “still kind of a little not-on-board” with gay marriage and what it means, and later, in an interview with Howard Stern, DeGeneres stated she found Jenner’s stance on gay marriage confusing. Jenner reportedly brings this up in the book, saying that the incident (rather than her own apparent reluctance to fully embrace marriage equality) “alienated” her from the LGBTQ community.
The lesson here: do not mess with the power of Ellen.