How Ellen DeGeneres’ Coming Out Changed My Life 20 Years Ago

Ellen DeGeneres
President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, Washington, D.C., November 22. Alex Wong/Getty

I'm a writer. I'm a comic. I'm a Jew. I'm a Midwesterner. And I'm gay. The latter of which I'm only able to openly be, and include into my work in an honest way, because of Ellen DeGeneres.

I was 14 when Ellen DeGeneres and her character Ellen Morgan from Ellen simultaneously came out as gay on April 30, 1997. There are countless LGBTQ people who were impacted by this moment, not to mention greater society as a whole. DeGeneres defined what it meant to be gay at that time, whether she liked it or not. But even though it was a groundbreaking moment for TV history, queer people, and society, it was for me the game-changing moment when I knew the walls of the closet I was living in were about to come tumbling down. If what James Baldwin said in Notes of a Native Son is correct, that, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them,” the moment Ellen DeGeneres uttered the words, “I’m gay,” was the moment in my personal history when I knew nothing was ever going to be the same again.

Ellen DeGeneres Bill Clinton President Clinton talks with actresses Ellen Degeneres (R) and Anne Heche at the White House Correspondents dinner April 26 as actor George Clooney looks on at left. Degeneres, Heche and Clooney were among celebrities and dignitaries that attended the annual event. sv/Photo by Neshan H. sv/Photo by Neshan H.

In 1997, I was a fat 14-year-old with a larger-than-life personality. I used humor to deflect attention away from the obvious: that I was different. I had different tastes than the other kids, different interests. When everyone was obsessing over a sport or a video game, I was watching stand-up comedy, late night talk shows, and of course, Ellen. Comics like DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Judy Gold and Sandra Bernhard were my everything. (Notice a pattern here? Hint: they’re all gay.). I never thought my interests were wrong or bad; quite the contrary, I thought I had great taste and everyone else was just a bit less sophisticated. I used this false confidence to deflect any negative attention I might have gotten because I was so different.

But that false confidence has a big side effect: loneliness. I had no peers. I couldn’t look to anybody around me, in my family, at my school, to identify with. But I could on TV, even if I couldn’t understand why I had such a connection to these obviously queer personalities. So I daydreamed about meeting them someday, being a comic myself, having my own talk show.

As the months led up to Ellen’s coming out, there were rumors. At first she wouldn’t address them, just deflect them in a humorous way. Like when she was a guest on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and talked about her character being Lebanese.

My own personal excitement for this intensified. I followed every piece of news, watched every entertainment show, I was obsessed, but I did it all in secret. I didn’t want anybody knowing that I cared this much about somebody saying they were gay because I knew what that then said about me. I kept it quiet, and counted down the days for “The Puppy Episode” to air.  

On April 30, 1997, I rushed home from school. I wanted to get home early enough so that I could secretly get the portable TV into my room without anybody knowing. It was this tiny TV, the kind you’d use on a camping trip (I presume, never been camping a day in my life). I had to play it cool though, because I didn’t want anybody knowing what I was going to be doing between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. that night. I ate dinner, and then said I was going to do homework, my indication to everyone to not disturb me.

I turned the main TV in my room to a different channel, just so that nobody would hear what I was actually watching. I sat on my bed, portable TV in hand, glued to every moment of the episode. As the episode made it’s way to the pivotal moment, where Ellen’s character meets Susan at the airport to tell her she’s gay, I grew nervous. I was both excited and terrified. Then she said those words heard by the 42 million other people watching, “I’m gay," and I started to sweat. It was as if suddenly I knew what this meant, everyone was going to know I’m gay. I thought, now that people know what we, gay people, look like, they certainly were going to be able to tell I’m gay.

Imagine experiencing something as a child that’s both exciting and terrifying, but you have nobody to talk to about it. You’re alone, both in your joy and your fear. I wanted to tell someone, not that I’m gay, but just that I liked what Ellen did. But I couldn’t.

After the show ended, I quietly put the portable TV back, and went to the kitchen. My mom was there, doing the dishes. “Did you see Ellen come out?” she asked. Panicked, I quickly responded, “No, I was doing homework.” Then she said something that for her was nothing, but for me changed everything. “You should have,” she said, “it was brave.” Suddenly, watching my mother do the dishes, fat, sissy, gay me knew, even if others weren’t OK with my being gay, my mom would be. Ellen did that. Ellen inspired that moment.

Since that day I’ve grown into a 34-year-old man who shares his life through his work. I’ve never had to hide who I am, or play it down, or not be out. I’ve been able to approach my adulthood with honesty. I’m able to share stories through the lens of all the things that make me who I am. Being gay is just a part of me, but it’s a part I’m damn proud of. Ellen’s coming out allowed me, and countless others, to know that I could still be all of the things I wanted to be and be gay. It hasn’t always been easy, I’ve gotten nasty comments, rejection, but that’s par for the course for someone who puts themselves out there so that others are able to see and hear and read stories from a different perspective.

Ellen ends her talk show every day with, “Be kind to one another.” Her kindness, honesty, and bravery is what changed things for queer people. And for that, I, and millions others, are forever grateful.