Ellen DeGeneres is now a famous and beloved icon of the LGBT community and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. As a result, it’s hard to think that there was a period during which she was a pariah. But when Ellen first came out as gay in 1997, the world of American entertainment was a very different place. Many comments were made about her at the time, in fact – and one in particular hurt terribly.
Both Ellen’s career and her mental health were adversely affected by that public statement about her sexuality. In fact, ABC even issued a warning to parents before her show, which would only last for one more season following the announcement. All in all, it was an incredibly distressing period for the star.
Ellen has since bounced back, of course. She’s seemingly content in her marriage to Portia de Rossi, and her talk show is a massive success to boot. Yet while those who watch Ellen on TV will know that her motto is “Be kind to one another,” there was a time when people weren’t nice to her at all. And the one cutting remark she appears to remember the most came from another gay icon: Elton John.
Ellen had realized at an early age that she was attracted to other girls, but back then she had lacked the psychological framework to process those feelings. “I didn’t know I was gay. I had thoughts of like, liking girls. It was very clear to me that I liked girls,” she told Making Gay History in 2001. “But I didn’t think it was anything that I could actually pursue.”
And Ellen’s childhood was unorthodox in many other ways, too. For one, her parents were Christian Scientists, meaning they didn’t accept any form of medical intervention. “My entire childhood, I never had any vaccination. Never had any medicine,” Ellen said in her 2018 stand-up show Relatable. “[My parents] believed [that] we are spiritual beings having a material experience in the material world.”
“[My parents’] mantra was ‘Know the truth.’ And their truth was, ‘There is no pain unless you give it pain with your mind,’” Ellen went on. Yet these teachings didn’t help the future star when young. She continued, “I split my knee open, and my bone was exposed. And my dad told me to know the truth, and I said, ‘Well, the truth is my bone is exposing its material self to the material world. Help me.’ And then I passed out.”
Further traumatic episodes followed during Ellen’s youth. As a teenager, she was sexually assaulted – a revelation that the host made to the audience of The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2018. “As a victim of sexual abuse, I am furious at people who don’t believe it and who say, ‘How do you not remember exactly what day it was?’ You don’t remember those things,” she said.
And, tragically, Ellen’s then-girlfriend had passed away in 1980. Kathy “Kat” Perkoff’s life was cut all too short in an automobile crash at the age of just 23, and Ellen had partially witnessed the traumatic scene. The chat show host recalled the events of that period during an interview for Oprah’s Master Class in 2015.
There, Ellen relayed how she and her girlfriend had temporarily broken up. And while the star added that she had had every intention of moving back in with Kat, who was keen to reconcile, she nevertheless wanted to “teach [Kat] a lesson” first. As a result, when the pair met up that evening at a gig, Ellen refused to head out with her ex. “She was trying to get me to come back home,” the comedian said. “I acted like I couldn’t hear her because the music was too loud.”
So, Kat eventually left without Ellen. When Ellen herself made the journey home with friends, however, they encountered a car “split in two” on the road. And even though there was nobody else around, the group could hear sirens behind them – with the result being that they just carried on driving. Ellen hadn’t recognized the vehicle, either, but the next day she was informed that Kat had been traveling in the car and had subsequently passed away.
And, naturally, the aftermath of the crash proved devastating to Ellen. “That [news], of course, made me feel like I should have gone home with her that night… I should have stopped… All kinds of things. A lot of guilt,” the star admitted. “In an instant, [Kat] just was gone. It shifted my entire focus.”
So, Ellen had already suffered her share of trauma even before she took the brave decision to come out as gay. And in Relatable, she explained what had led her to opening up about her personal life. “I had a dream that I was holding a baby finch,” the comedian said. “Like a little precious bird. And it was my pet, and I put it back in its cage, which was this beautiful, multi-tiered bamboo cage.”
Ellen added, “And the bird became me when it went into the cage. All of a sudden, [the bird] realized that it was up against a window all along, and the window was open, and the bars were wide enough for the bird to fly out. And I looked at the bird, and I said, ‘Don’t leave. You’re safe in here.’ The bird looked at me and said ‘I don’t belong in here’ and flew out. [Then] the next morning, I woke up and said, ‘I’m coming out.’”
But coming out in 1990s America was arguably much riskier than it would be today. Homophobia was seemingly more widespread, and incidents of violence towards LGBT people were far from uncommon. In addition, in the year before Ellen came out, a poll revealed that the majority of Americans – 68 percent of them, to be precise – opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage.
At the time, Ellen was starring in a self-titled sitcom as alter ego Ellen Morgan – a bumbling bookshop proprietor who’d won the hearts of audiences with her endearing clumsiness. And in preparation for her public announcement, Ellen arranged to out both herself and her TV character in close succession. So, two weeks before the broadcast of the pivotal episode of her show, which would be titled “The Puppy Episode,” Ellen appeared on the cover of Time under the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.”
However, the backlash was both overwhelming and terrifying, with Ellen receiving a barrage of abusive letters in the wake of her revelation. And while the writers and producers of the show – one of whom was Ellen’s brother, Vance – tried to insulate her from this hostility, events escalated to the point that they could no longer be contained. Death threats were even stuck to the front door of Ellen’s home at one point.
Then a bomb threat was made against the studio where Ellen was being filmed. “It was scary. It was really scary,” Jack Plotnick, a gay actor on the show, told HuffPost in 2017. Nevertheless, immediately after the building’s evacuation, Plotnick found himself being both inspired and touched by the determination of co-star Laura Dern – a straight actress who was portraying Ellen’s love interest in the series. “[Dern] was completely invested in what this show could mean and how it could help people,” he said.
And Ellen also put herself out there to help people. After her coming-out episode aired, she received news that a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, had been beaten and left for dead in Wyoming. Upon hearing of the tragedy, she then flew out to the hospital where Matthew was in the hope that she could do something – but, sadly, he died before she had the chance.
Ellen subsequently spoke at a vigil two days after Matthew’s death, with the speech still available to view on YouTube. “It just hit me why I am so devastated by [Matthew’s assault]. Because this is what I was trying to stop. This is exactly why I did what I did,” Ellen said, in reference to her own coming out. “You see them come out in forces when they think a lesbian is gonna be on television. The preachers come out then. But, you know, something like this happens, and where are they?”
And in her 2001 interview with Making Gay History, Ellen spoke about how much fear and guilt she experienced at around the time that she revealed she is a lesbian. “I dealt with it in therapy – that I really thought that I would be killed for what I was doing,” she said. “And we did get a bomb threat that night, and I did get death threats and all.”
Not everyone responded negatively to Ellen’s coming out, though; plenty of people sent her letters thanking her or telling her that she’d inspired them to speak their truth, too. But, unfortunately, the homophobia of the period saw some to view a gay woman on TV as being inappropriate for children.
What’s more, Ellen wasn’t even informed that her show was now being aired with a parental advisory message. “Suddenly, there was a warning label to put the kids away. You know like, ‘Don’t let kids see this,’” she told Making Gay History. “It’s like, ‘No. That’s exactly what I’m trying to get, you know, through to you…’ You’re discriminating against me.”
In addition, big companies such as Chrysler and Coca-Cola stopped advertising on Ellen’s show. Tabloids pursued her relentlessly as well, to the extent that her relationship with actress Anne Heche fell apart. Then, a year after Ellen had come out, her show was canceled. And this turn of events was crushing for her.
Even Laura Dern, who is straight, found it hard to get work after acting alongside Ellen. In 2007 she joined her former co-star on her talk show to discuss how she hadn’t been able to get a new role for a year afterwards. “There was certainly backlash, I guess, [that] we all felt from it,” Dern said.
Thankfully, Ellen’s career did recover, with her series The Ellen DeGeneres Show going on to become a massive hit. Indeed, she’s probably better known now as a host rather than a comedic actress – despite her continuing to star in animated films such as Finding Dory. Regardless of her subsequent success, though, she still speaks with anger about her experiences after coming out.
While promoting Finding Dory in 2016, Ellen spoke to The Daily Telegraph about that period in her life – and a household name came up in conversation. “I was the butt of everyone’s jokes on late-night television or in magazines,” she said. “It got so bad that at one point even Elton John, who I hadn’t really known, said, ‘Shut up and be funny. We know you’re gay.’”
And Ellen would go on to mention Elton again a few years later. In 2018 she brought up the incident while speaking on Dax Shepard’s podcast, Armchair Expert. “Even Elton John said, ‘Shut up already. We know you’re gay. Be funny,’” she repeated. “I had never met him, and I thought, ‘What kind of support is that from a gay person?’”
Yet Elton appears to have never publicly commented on Ellen’s remarks about him. If any apology was made, then, perhaps it was done in private. And it’s worth noting that Ellen has portrayed herself at times as a pretty forgiving person. After Kevin Hart came under fire in 2019 for making homophobic remarks in the past, for example, the chat show host gave a statement supporting him.
Furthermore, on the occasions when Elton has appeared on Ellen’s series, there’s been no sign of any enmity between the pair. When the musician performed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2003, he even gave the host a big kiss after finishing his song. And when Elton came back in 2013, Ellen congratulated the singer on becoming a father and for his upcoming wedding to David Furnish.
Plus, Ellen caught up once again with Elton in 2016, when he talked about the legalities of his marriage to Furnish. “Because I had a civil partnership before, it was hard for me to get married. They had to change the law,” he said. The U.K. eventually legalized same-sex marriage in March 2014. “We got married in December on the anniversary of our civil partnership,” Elton explained.
And after conversing with Elton that day, Ellen gave him presents for his children from “Auntie Ellen.” In a reference to their father’s career, she gifted two child-size pianos – with each instrument emblazoned with one of the kids’ names. “This is not pushing it on them, but just in case…” Ellen said, and Elton looked surprised and delighted at the gesture.
Perhaps we can assume that Ellen has forgiven Elton, then, even if she hasn’t necessarily forgotten. It seems, too, that Elton himself has certainly not shut up about being gay; in fact, he speaks out frequently about homophobic behavior. In 2018, for instance, he suggested to the BBC that people should withdraw from social media as a stand against hate speech.
Then, in 2019, Elton asked the public to refrain from using any Brunei-owned hotels. That year, the country had implemented the death penalty for those who had sex with someone of the same gender. Needless to say, both the citizens of Brunei and the international LGBT community were horrified at the decision. And among the other people who supported Elton’s initiative was Ellen.
What’s more, in 2019 Elton received a Legion of Honor award – the highest that the nation of France bestows – for his activism. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the ceremony saw French president Emmanuel Macron call the star “an icon that knew how to set an example.” And Ellen, too, has a significant award to her name. In fact, it’s America’s most senior civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A tearful Ellen received the medal from President Obama in 2016. And at the ceremony, Obama spoke about her hard work advocating for the gay community. “Again and again, Ellen DeGeneres has shown us that a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open, more loving place – so long as we just keep swimming,” he said, in an affectionate reference nod to her Finding Nemo catchphrase.
In addition, while Ellen’s coming out may have led to some painful experiences for the star, it really did help other people. In 2017 HuffPost published a retrospective about the famous “Puppy Episode” and interviewed those who’d been influenced by it under the headline “When Ellen Came Out, She Didn’t Just Change Lives. She Saved Them.”
One person whose life had been touched by Ellen was Sylvia Green, who at the time was a writer’s assistant on the Ellen show. She was one of the first people to know of the comedian’s plans to come out on television, in fact, and she too experienced anxiety from the death threats leveled against the series and its star. And while the episode was filming, Green accepted that she was gay as well.
Another of the people interviewed was a woman called Sarah Kate Ellis. She’d watched the infamous episode and had been motivated to open up about her sexuality to her parents as a result. Indeed, HuffPost reported that her dad had asked her, “Are you gay like Ellen?” – to which she was able to answer in the affirmative. Ellis went on to be an executive of LGBT advocacy group GLAAD.
Ellis also told HuffPost how grateful she was that Ellen had decided to come out publicly. “That night, that time, [Ellen] saved so many lives,” she said. “I know it because people have told me they were considering killing themselves, and then they saw [‘The Puppy Episode’] and it gave them hope.”
And Ellen herself seems to be at peace with those events now. On the anniversary of “The Puppy Episode” in 2017, she told her chat show audience, “[Coming out] was the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life. And I wouldn’t change one moment of it – because it led me to be exactly where I am today, standing in front of you.”