TV Tidbit: When Ellen Came Out on TV
In an era where Will & Grace and Modern Family have made gay characters commonplace among the leads in television sitcoms, it is often hard to remember when television was apprehensive about including them. One of the first was Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Jodie Campbell on Soap. Though this was groundbreaking at the time, Jodie was often a stereotype, playing into the homophobia humor of the time. It was until April 30, 1997 when Ellen Degeneres, four seasons into her five-season sitcom Ellen decided to have her character come out of the closet.
Up until that point, her character had been through a series of failed attempts at finding love with men and occasionally there was a hint that maybe the character was not all that interested in even pursuing that avenue. The actress had come out in real life, and when the character finally exited the closet, it was a brave moment for television and the actress herself. She changed the face of television, but also put herself on the line for much ridicule. Companies like Wendy’s dropped her as their spokesperson, prompting me to give up Frosties to this day. Her viewership also suffered when the storylines became focused on her life as a gay woman and the show was promptly cancelled after season five. Still, without her bold choice to give a voice to a marginalized section of America, it is fair to say that we would not have made the strides we did in the decades to come. Gay rights, marriage equality, representation of gays, lesbians, transgender people on television needed that push that Ellen Degeneres gave us to make them acceptable talking points.
Fun Fact: The coming-out episode was full of stars including Oprah Winfrey, k.d.lang, Laura Dern, Gina Gershon, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Najimy, Dwight Yokum, and Melissa Etheridge.