The year was 1997 and Ellen DeGeneres was sick of living in the closet. Good for her. Actually, Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet publicly on Oprah in February of 1997, which was a big deal. Despite the fact that it was only 20 years ago, publicly coming out was still uncommon among celebrities. This meant that outing her character on her show was also a huge deal.
The episode begins with Ellen Morgan, her character, going out to dinner with an old friend/crush, Richard (Steven Eckholdt), who brings along his producer, Susan (Laura “No, really, Laura Dern” Dern). Ellen is slightly turned off by Richard, but finds herself drawn to Susan. After Susan tells Ellen she thought she was gay, Ellen denies it and accuses Susan of trying to convert her. Susan laughs this off, telling her that she was trying, and that she’s only one new lesbian away from the toaster oven. In defiance, Ellen heads back to Richard’s room and tells everyone, including strangers, that they had fantastic sex. Everyone, that is, except her therapist and the audience, who learn that Ellen has only ever “clicked” with women. Ellen runs to the airport to catch up with Susan, and, because it’s that kind of sitcom, accidentally shouts “I’m Gay” into the P.A. system. In perhaps the least accurate portrayal of a terminal ever, people actually stop and pay attention to her.
The rest of the episode is Ellen realizing, through discussions of her dreams and feelings with her therapist, that she has been hiding her sexuality for a long time. She’s never admitted to anyone that she was gay, because she’s worried about losing all of her friends. Finally, she agrees to have all of her friends over to tell them that she’s a lesbian, but when the time comes, she still can’t do it. Fortunately, her neighbor Peter (Patrick Bristow), who is both openly gay and the first person Ellen tells besides the airport, ends up yelling at her to tell her friends that she’s gay, outing her. In the end, Ellen’s friends accept her, although her female friends are a bit hesitant. Unfortunately, Susan was only looking for a fling, so Ellen is back to being single, but at least she knows what gender to look for now. Unfortunately, the first woman she tries to hit on prefers her straight friend Paige. To end the episode, Ellen is led by Susan to Melissa Etheridge, who confirms Ellen as gay, and then awards Susan a toaster-oven. Since, in the past, more than one woman I’ve dated has sworn off men afterwards, I’m still waiting on my Cuisinart.
This episode had more far-reaching consequences than it probably should have in real life. 1) Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Morgan were now both openly gay, making the first time an openly gay title character was played by an openly gay actress on a network TV show. 2) ABC promptly panicked because the episode received a few complaints from fundamentalist groups, in addition to a bunch of awards and a Peabody, and put a disclaimer on the show that warned parents that the show contained adult material. To contrast, there was no disclaimer on Spin City, a show airing at the same time which had an openly gay black man as one of the main characters. Most people, including DeGeneres, assumed that it was because a real gay person playing a gay character made it “too real.” Either way, this episode was a pretty big deal in real life, so I put it on here. Twenty years later it seems like coming out has gotten a lot easier, but, that’s not something I can really judge. Hopefully, one day, “coming out” will be completely unnecessary, and maybe this episode helped kick-start that.
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