When Ellen DeGeneres was filming her now-famous coming-out scene for her self-titled sitcom in 1997, every single take was just as emotional as the last. In the scene, Ellen's character says for the first time out loud, "I'm gay," unleashing a visible surge of different emotions: fear, euphoria, relief. The rawness of the scene was powerful, and as Ellen tells "Oprah's Master Class," the tears that accompanied it were very real.
"Even ... when we rehearsed it, every single time I said, 'I'm gay,' I would start crying," Ellen says. "Every time."
For someone who never thought she would come out publicly, Ellen had become an iconic figure in LGBT television history. The episode won multiple awards, including two Emmys, and Ellen herself was credited with paving the way for other LGBT television shows and characters in the entertainment industry. Ellen later felt liberated and empowered by announcing her sexuality, but prior to uttering those two life-changing words on television, she had been downright terrified.
"You know, when you're gay, you don't say to someone, 'I'm gay,'" she says. "Those words never come out of your mouth. You just never say that sentence.
"To say that sentence out loud, in front of a whole bunch of people is scary as hell -- and emotional and empowering -- which is why most people cry when they tell their parents or tell anybody," Ellen continues. "Just saying those words 'I'm gay,' it takes a long time to say it without emotion."
This emotion is rooted in shame, which Ellen says has been perpetrated by much public opinion.
"It's a scary thing because society has drilled it into us that we are wrong," she says.
It takes an incredible amount of strength to go against that mindset and live authentically. "I don't like labels, but if that's the label you're giving me, I am going to own it," Ellen says.
She may have seemed fearless at the time of her coming out, but Ellen asserts that this characterization couldn't be further from the truth.
"I'm not fearless. I didn't do it because I'm fearless," she says. "I did it in spite of the fact that I was scared to death, in spite of the fact that I cared deeply what people thought of me, in spite of the fact that I needed to have a career. So, it made me really proud of myself."
"Oprah's Master Class" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on OWN.
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