In a recent cover story and interview with Adweek, a major advertising trade publication that has honored her with its Media Visionary Award, Ellen DeGeneres talked about the repercussions of her coming out two decades ago. She divulged that she got numerous threats of violence (even death threats) after she revealing herself as a lesbian in 1997. Those hostile actions and warnings of bodily harm included a bomb scare at the studio where her ABC sitcom Ellen was taped.
“When I came out, I had death threats and there was a bomb threat, but they misjudged the time of the taping,” DeGeneres told Adweek. “We had already finished, and thank God.”
In April 1997, DeGeneres came out both on the cover of Time magazine and on her self-titled sitcom as the lead character Ellen Morgan. On the show, the big reveal took place during a two-part episode called “The Puppy Episode”. Time ran the story with a cover photo of DeGeneres and the iconic headline: Yep, I’m Gay. Here’s an excerpt from her famous coming out in the magazine:
TIME: So, for the record, are you yourself gay?
Ellen DeGeneres: Yes. You’re the first person that I’ve—I mean I knew that I was going to—that was one of the things when I decided to have my character on the show come out, I knew I was going to have to come out too. But 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.
Despite the support DeGeneres got from diehard fans and, of course, the LGBTQ community, she received a lot of angry feedback—feedback that evidently included threats of violence and death. And her career took a serious blow. A year after her coming out, ABC canceled Ellen. She returned to TV in 2001, after CBS picked up The Ellen Show, on which the lead character Ellen Richmond was also an out lesbian. But the network dropped the new sitcom after airing just eight of the 13 episodes. It would be another two years before she successfully launched her self-titled talk show. The Ellen DeGeneres Show is now in its 16th season, enjoys consistently high ratings, and has won nearly 60 Daytime Emmy Awards.
Even so, to this day, DeGeneres gets messages of hate on social media, which she avoids reading.
Many of us remember her coming out as a profoundly courageous act that had a tremendous (and lasting) impact on LGBTQ visibility in the media. It’s just as important to realize the price that she paid, both professionally and personally. And it’s a crucial reminder to be aware of the price that members of our community continue to pay. People who dare to be themselves are at risk, two decades later, in the age of Trump and a resurgence of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.