HISTORY'S Moment in Media: Ellen DeGeneres, the LGBTQ TV Icon

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Ellen DeGeneres never aimed to be a trailblazer by playing the first lead character on television to come out as gay.  Yet four years into her popular 1990's sitcom, Ellen, her character, Ellen Morgan, hadn't been in a romantic relationship.  Her writers wanted new material, but for DeGeneres, who was publicly still in the closet, it was an uncomfortable issue.

The comedian, who had a natural girl-next-door appeal, didn't really think that her sexuality was anyone's business, but the more she steered away from the truth, the more it felt like hiding.  As she would later tell Oprah Winfrey in an interview, "I realized that as long as I had this secret that I worried about all the time that it made it look like something was wrong."

So, in the spring of 1996, DeGeneres gathered the entire staff of the show and informed them that she was coming out in real life and wanted her character to do so as well.  The staff was excited to make a statement on what was then still a very hot-button issue.  There had been only a few lead gay characters in either film or television; those who existed, like Tom Hanks' character in Philadelphia, were often portrayed as victims.

But before DeGeneres and her team had to face public scrutiny, they had to convince ABC executives.  They were initially opposed.  On the 20th anniversary of the sitcom, DeGeneres recalled how one executive, when told of the need for a relationship in the show, retorted, "Well, get her a puppy; she's not coming out."  DeGeneres and her producers were eventually able to sway the studio, and the episode when she would say "I'm gay" became known as The Puppy Episode.

For a full year before that moment, however, the writers on Ellen gently teased at her sexuality.  Meanwhile, the network went to great lengths to preserve secrecy as they built up to the reveal, including printing the scripts for the big episode on burgundy paper (to prevent photocopying) and collecting them after the shooting.

The taping, which took place in front of a live audience, had lured a star-studded cast led by Winfrey, who played Ellen Morgan's therapist, and Laura Dern (pictured above right with Ellen), who played her love interest.  (So many Hollywood A-listers wanted to show support for the message that actors like Woody Harrelson were being turned away.)  In Vanity Fair's coverage of the show's 20th anniversary, a producer recounted Winfrey's reaction as she watched the playback of her scenes:  "The tears just flowed down her cheeks, and she said, 'I'm soproud to be a part of this.  I'm so proud.'"

After the taping, and before the show aired on April 30, 1997, word leaked out -- and the reaction got ugly.  The studio received a letter from conservative advocacy group Media Research Center that was signed by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and televangelist Pat Robertson.  The letter accused the producers of attempting to "promote homosexuality" and nicknamed DeGeneres "Ellen Degenerate."  So many threats were received that the set had to be swept for bombs before each taping.

Yet despite these forms of intimidation, The Puppy Episode aired to a record audience of 44 million viewers, about three times the show's usual number, and sparked a cultural change.  Around the country, the LGBTQ community gathered in parties to celebrate the moment; many wrote letters to the network to thank them.  The show won an Emmy Award, and DeGeneres hosted Saturday Night Live and was on the cover of Time magazine. A year later, however, the show's audience had fallen off, and Ellen was canceled.

Some predicted that DeGeneres' career was over.  They were, of course, wrong.  She has since emceed the Oscars, voiced Dory in the smash hit Finding Nemo and hosted her own daytime talk show for nearly two decades.  Meanwhile, the TV landscape was irrevocably changed to be peopled by gay and straight characters alike.

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