When Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet on her sitcom in 1997, no one threw her a party. The million moms still had braces and acne and teenage angst, but there were tens of millions all over the country who had never knowingly met a gay person, let alone seen a confident, self-proclaimed one on TV. There was no LOGO, no Will & Grace, no Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Ellen was it.
Ellen's bravery was rewarded with a big fat pink slip -- her show was cancelled not long after. As irony would have it, JCPenney also dropped its advertising after she came out. What a different 15 years makes!
After a few years in understandable hiding from mainstream criticism, and one short, failed stint at another sitcom, The Ellen Show, which didn't have legs beyond its 2001-02 run on CBS (and which downplayed her sexuality), NBC offered her another cat life. On Sept. 8, 2003, Ellen got her own talk show.
To the surprise and delight of queers everywhere, Ellen's show took off.
Some may say the climate was ripe for her to be out on TV. After all, it was a new era when gays were gracing network television in asexual but heartwarming roles for nuclear families from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale, and everywhere in between, to tune in to. Queer as Folk, the revolutionary all-on gay show on Showtime was in its third season and going strong. The truth wasn't that the timing was better, it was that Ellen paved the way for any and all gay representation on television by taking a bullet on behalf of all LGBT folks, the ones on screen and those sitting at home watching. In effect, Ellen set the stage in 1997 for her later success and for the visibility and fair representation of all LGBT people on TV.
Still, we held our breath.
Daytime television meant soccer moms, and soccer moms were judgmental heterosexuals. They bought plastic storage bags in bulk and drove minivans! Surely, they'd burn Ellen at the stake if she didn't stick to a script that included mom-friendly fashion advice, interviews with cute Hollywood boys, and that little G-rated dance where she knocked her knees and waved her arms and tickled couch potatoes everywhere.
Ellen's ability to capture hearts from the most homophobic corners of the country is nothing short of a miracle. Her warmth, sharp wit, and hot wife are enough to win over most, but she is truly a story of her own success. Ellen has been a heartwarming and diligent leader. She stayed in the ring even when homophobia boxed her out, and is swinging hard. Her current show has garnered nine seasons and counting with 2.7 million average viewers per episode, having earned 32 Daytime Emmy Awards. Ellen has inspired major corporations like JCPenney to do a 180 and stand up for LGBT rights in her name, and she now freely discusses issues of equality, and her relationship with her wife, TV star Portia de Rossi, on her show.
We salute Ellen for her pioneering work in LGBT visibility on TV, for serving as a stellar spokesperson for our community, and for having worked her way into living rooms everywhere!