If you haven’t already seen the video of Ellen DeGeneres being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, stop what you’re doing and watch it below.
Please tell us we’re not the only ones who got teary?
Ellen has been a champion for the LGBT community for close to two decades now, ever since coming out on the cover of TIME Magazine in April 1997. Shortly after the cover made headlines around the world, Ellen appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss the reaction her coming out had.
“I knew that it would be big, but I never knew it was going to be this big. I didn’t think it would drag out for so long either,” Ellen told Oprah.
Ellen is referring to media circus and intensive interest the American tabloids created surrounding DeGeneres’ sexuality, as she was the first leading character in a television program to be openly gay.
In the summer of 1996, the star called a meeting for the writers of her hit show Ellen, who were about to write Season Four, and told them she wanted her character to come out on the show. “There was concern over not only how the audience would react, but how the advertisers would react,” biographer Lisa Iannucci told Biography.com.
“We had no idea if ABC were even going to allow that to happen,” Ellen’s brother, Vance DeGeneres a screenwriter on the show told biography.com “So it was an incredibly stressful season.”
Watch the moment DeGeneres comes out on her sitcom below. The article continues after video.
Ellen decided to come out in real life before her character did on the show, with interviews on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Diane Sawyer and the cover of TIME Magazine.
“It’s something I decided I wanted to do and thought it would be wonderful for me as a result,” Ellen told Oprah at the time.
“I never thought it was anybody’s business, who I am and who I am with. And then I realised since I had this secret that worried me all the time that it made it feel like something was wrong.”
The whole interview seems a bit archaic watching it two decades on. At one point Oprah asks what made Ellen ‘finally comfortable to say it‘ to which Ellen responds, “I’ve become more comfortable with myself just in general and I went to therapy and you know, not for that issue but just finding out more about myself.”
Sawyer even went as far as to ask Ellen whether she’d slept with men. DeGeneres noted she’d slept with two men in her life and likened the occasions to Peggy Lee’s hit ‘Is That All There Is?’
Keep in mind at the time of the interview DeGeneres was 39, and she had been in the entertainment industry for nearly two decades already. She was a much-loved public figure and the fear at the time was her fans would ‘turn against her’ after she came out.
“When I decided to have my character on the show come out, I knew I was going to have to come out, too,” Ellen told Time Magazine at the time. “But I didn’t want to talk about it until the show was done.”
“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.”
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In the weeks following her character coming out to over 46 million viewers, many religious groups began to protest outside their local ABC stations to take Ellen off air.
“I’m concerned about Ellen. I’m concerned about the lifestyle that she is living because it is deadly and I am concerned that she does have so many followers,” one of the protestors said.
ABC folded under pressure and put disclaimers at the beginning of each episode saying there many be themes that are ‘inappropriate’ for children. Yes, really. The ratings dropped and in an interview at the 1998 Golden Globes DeGeneres questioned whether the world was ready for an openly gay character, let alone actor.
“She lost her career, and she had a really tough time off it,” Ellen’s mother, Betty DeGeneres told biography.com.
“I really thought people would be more embracing and more welcoming when I did what I did because they’d had time to get to know me first,” DeGeneres said in a 1999 interview. “And I learnt a big lesson – that it doesn’t change overnight.”
Fast-forward two decades and DeGeneres, who has been married to actress Portia de Rossi since 2008, is at the helm of her long-running hit talk show and is loved by millions the world over.
“It became bigger than I ever thought it would be. Bigger than I wanted it to be,” Ellen told Oprah in and episode of Oprah’s Master Class last year. “It overshadowed my talent, it overshadowed who I am as a person.”
“It was only meant to be, you know, just being honest. And it became this snowball, this avalanche, that just got bigger and bigger and bigger. There was no stopping it. It turned into people not liking me, because they thought that I was somehow political all of a sudden.”
Political or not, Ellen’s decision to come out when she did, when the world still wasn’t as progressive as it is today, was a brave and historic one. And her being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in the LGBT community is proof of just how far the world has come.
“Changing hearts and minds, I don’t think anybody’s been more influential than you on that,” President Barack Obama told Ellen during an episode of her talk show in February this year. “That’s true, that’s true. And, so, your courage and you’re just really likeable. You being able to claim who you were, suddenly empowers other people and suddenly it’s your brother, it’s your uncle, it’s your best friend, it’s you co-workers. And then attitudes shifts. Laws followed but it started with folks like you. I’m so proud of you.”
While presenting DeGeneres with the award, Obama said, “Again and again Ellen DeGeneres has shown us that a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open, and more loving place so long as we just keep swimming.