Ellen DeGeneres, Time

Time Magazine

It's almost impossible to believe a time existed in which Ellen DeGeneres didn't proudly stand up as a gay woman, but it's essential to remember that time did exist.

In fact, the comedian and talk show host came out 20 years ago to the day, on April 14, 1997, in Time magazine. The cover simply read: "Yep, I'm Gay"—three words that changed the LGBTQ conversation forever.

Time asked, "So, for the record, are you yourself gay?" to which DeGeneres responded, "Yes. You're the first person that I've—I mean I knew that I was going to—that was one of the things when I decided to have my character on the show come out, I knew I was going to have to come out too. But I didn't want to talk about it until the show was done."

She continued, "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."

At the time, DeGeneres was the lead actress in her sitcom Ellen on ABC, a show in which her character Ellen Morgan also eventually came out as gay. Though 42 million people tuned in to watch the beloved character reveal her truth, brands like J.C. Penny and Chrysler withdrew their advertisements for the episode, and Wendy's pulled out of sponsorships all together.

The show was subsequently canceled after its fifth series.

Ellen DeGeneres, 2017 Peoples Choice Awards

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

DeGeneres would face a career decline for several years before landing the voice of Dory in Finding Nemo in 2003 and subsequently launching The Ellen DeGeneres Show that same year. 

Fast forward 14 years, and she's one of the most influential celebrities of all time. In fact, according to a poll by Variety in 2015, she did more to influence Americans' attitudes about gay rights than any other celebrity or public figure.

She's become one of the most awarded television personalities. She's been honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama for her influence. But one of the most notable effects of her coming out is that she empowered other people to do the same.

For example, Jane Lynch married Lara Embry in 2010, and though she never really had a massive "coming out" moment, she did reveal DeGeneres helped her.

"You were at the height of your fame and you came out," Lynch told DeGeneres that same year. "And that just blazed a trail for me. It really did. It made it so much easier for me what you did."

Ellen Page, Ellen DeGeneres

Michael Rozman/ Warner Bros.

In 2014, Ellen Page also thanked DeGeneres for paving the way for other LGBT celebs, including herself.

Page smiled as she admitted she felt a "tremendous amount of guilt and shame" lifted off her shoulders, but she still admitted it was "the most nervous I've ever been in my life."

She continued, "I was so ready to do it and quite frankly so excited to do it, so it was a combination of just such thrill to finally be at that place in my life where I was able to do that. And [I was] grateful to have that moment and grateful to you because you did it at a time where it was much harder and much scarier."

Country music singer Chely Wright also credited DeGeneres for her own coming out.

"I was watching the episode of your television show when you came out, oddly enough with my father," Wright told DeGeneres on her show in 2010. "I was watching it with my sister and my father, who did not know at the time that I was gay, and you may not want to hear this part, but I'm going to tell you. My father, the minute you came out, he reached for the remote control and flipped the TV off and he said, 'That's disgusting!' It sent me into a spiral."

Her father's reaction postponed her coming out for many years, "recommitting" herself to keeping her sexuality a secret...until she finally had enough. She found herself separated from her father and her family, which is why she decided to tell him.

Instead of just leaving him with her truth, however, she gave him Betty DeGeneres' book Love, Ellen. Wright said he became "the biggest advocate" and has been "walkin' in the footsteps of Betty DeGeneres" ever since.

Empire's Jussie Smollett was inspired to come out publicly on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2015.

The actor chose not to speak about his personal life during the main interview. Rather, he asked DeGeneres to film a special sit-down conversation with him backstage where he spoke openly about his sexuality.

"It was really important to me to make sure that it got across that there is no closet," he said. "There's never been a closet that I've been in. I don't own a closet, I got a dressed, but I don't have a closet…I have a home and that is my responsibility to protect that home."

Jussie Smollett, Ellen Degeneres

Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.

He continued, "So that's why I choose not to talk about my personal life. But there is without a doubt, no closet that I've ever been in, and I just wanted to make that clear. But it was most important for me to make that clear to you on your show at this time in the world.  And that's where I'm at."

He concluded, "My mama knows, my mama likes me a lot. And yes, I take her to The Sound of Music sing-along every single year. So, any questions? But you know, honestly, we're humans and we love and we do all that good stuff. So I'm honored for this opportunity and I'm honored to be here with you."

Needless to say, the world needed someone like DeGeneres 20 years ago, and we still need her just as much as ever today. 

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