Ellen DeGeneres Came Out 23 Years Ago in Front of 42 Million People: See More LGBTQ TV Firsts

It's been 23 years since Ellen aired "The Puppy Episode" on April 30, 1997 and Ellen DeGeneres and her character came out to the world.

By Billy Nilles 30 Apr, 2020 4:00 PMTags

On April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres changed TV for the better.

At the tail-end of her successful ABC sitcom Ellen's fourth season, after months of speculation and coming just weeks after the comedy legend appeared on the April 13 cover of Time magazine emblazoned with the words "Yep, I'm Gay," the seminal two-part episode known as "The Puppy Episode" aired, yanking DeGeneres' character Ellen Morgan out of the closet with her.

For the first time in television history, an openly lesbian character—the lead, no less!—was being played by an openly lesbian actress. And on a network owned by Disney!

While the two-part episode was met with criticism and condemnation from the usual conservative suspects, it was much more widely celebrated, pulling in 42 million viewers (the highest in the show's history), winning the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, a Peabody Award and a GLAAD Media Award in 1998 for DeGeneres.

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The price of progress, though, proved to be steep. While ABC renewed Ellen for a fifth season, it began airing a parental advisory warning prior to each episode. "It was like this voice like you're entering some kind of radiation center," DeGeneres told Entertainment Weekly, criticizing the network's decision. "It was very offensive, and you don't think that's going to affect ratings?"

Sure enough, it did. Ellen was canceled at the end of season five. 

DeGeneres retreated to stand-up comedy, where she'd gotten her start, before attempting a TV comeback first in 2001 with the short-lived The Ellen Show, a CBS sitcom in which her character was openly lesbian from the stars, before landing her true renaissance as the host of long-running and beloved talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2003. 

Laura Dern, who guest-starred in the episode as the woman Ellen develops feelings big enough for to come out of the closet, admitted in 2007 on DeGeneres' talk show that she faced backlash over her appearance and didn't work for a year-and-a-half afterwards. 

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"It was significant because I was doing successful independent movies, and, only months before that, I was in Jurassic Park, the most successful movie ever. So it was like, you're being offered this, you're being offered that — and it just stopped. Which is kind of wild," Dern told Vulture about the time in 2019. "By good fortune of the long path of a career, you can look back and say, how great to have it be felt, how backward we are."

Nevertheless, she described the role as the "greatest thing" and an "incredible honor."

Speaking about the momentous occasion in her life in a 2008 interview with TelevisionWeek, DeGeneres noted, "It was a huge step in my life. I think people sensed the honesty in it. I think it helped a lot of people, and still to this day I hear about parents and children being able to have an honest conversation through watching that show. That's ultimately what television can be: It can get conversations started."

In honor of DeGeneres' groundbreaking coming out, take a walk down the rainbow-colored memory lane with a look back at all the LGBTQ firsts on TV before it and since that similarly got conversations started in houses across America.

1971: All in the Family

All in the Family made LGBT history when it introduced the first gay character in primetime in 1971, revealing that Archie Bunker's bar buddy Steve was gay. Later in the show's run, Archie found out Edith's cousin was a lesbian who left her estate to her partner.

1972: That Certain Summer

Martin Sheen, Hal Holbrook and Hope Lange starred in this notable ABC TV movie about a divorced father who has found love with a younger man and struggles with telling his teen son about his new life. The movie is noted for depicting homosexuality in a sympathetic—read: normal—light.

1973: An American Family

Already out to his family, Lance Loud made history when he came out to the nation of viewers of the "first reality show," the documentary that followed his family.

1975: Hot l Balitmore

The Norman Lear sitcom starring James Cromwell, Charlotte Rae and Conchata Ferrell had perhaps the first depiction of a gay couple on an American TV series.

1977: Soap

Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas, a series regular on the soap opera-skewering Soap. The character was divisive at the time—early plots had him wanting to become a woman, he dated several women—but ultimately he was primetime TV's first gay dad.

1978: Robin Tyler

Robin Tyler was the first out lesbian on US TV in a Showtime comedy special hosted by Phyllis Diller.

1989: thirtysomething

Recurring characters Russell (David Marshall Green) and Peter (Peter Frechette) are shown in bed together "the morning after." No kissing or touching was shown and the scene generated huge attention, as advertisers fled the series.

1991: Roc

One of Fox's first shows, Roc, was the first to have a gay wedding on TV. The sitcom starred Charles S. Dutton as Roc, a garbage collector from Baltimore. In a "very special episode," Roc finds out his uncle is gay and has a partner. The family throws a ceremony for the two at their home.

1991: L.A. Law

The legal drama L.A. Law featured the first romantic lesbian kiss—even if it was a ratings ploy—on primetime TV between Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) and C. J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe).

1992: One Life to Live

In 1992, the world met One Life to Live's Billy Douglas, played by a young Ryan Phillippe, the first gay teen character on daytime TV.

1992: Roseanne

No stranger to breaking down barriers, Roseanne featured one of the first openly lesbian characters on TV with Nancy Bartlett (Sandra Bernhard). The character recurred from season four until the end of the series.

1994: My So-Called Life

While One Life to Live had its first gay teen in 1992, primetime's first openly gay teen series regular character came to us in My So-Called Life's Enrique "Rickie" Vasquez, played by Wilson Cruz.

1994: The Real World: San Francisco

In 1994, viewers also met Pedro Zamora on The Real World: San Francisco. Pedro was openly gay and HIV-positive. His commitment ceremony to Sean Sasser was the first (real) same-sex commitment ceremony broadcast on national TV. Zamora died shortly after the finale of his Real World season.

1996: Friends

"The One With the Lesbian Wedding" episode of Friends is considered the first primetime TV episode to feature a lesbian wedding.

1997: Ellen

"The Puppy Episode" of Ellen featured Ellen Morgan (Ellen DeGeneres) coming out as gay, the same time the star came out on the cover of Time magazine, making Ellen the first show to feature an openly lesbian actress playing an openly lesbian character.

1997: Relativity

Another first for ABC! Lisa Edelstein's character, out-lesbian Rhonda, becomes the first character to have a passionate, open-mouth kiss with another woman on primetime TV.

1998: Will & Grace

Will & Grace, created by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, premiered Sept 21, 1998. Need we say more?

1999: Dawson's Creek

While lesbian kisses became a ratings ploy for shows, TV's first "romantic" gay kiss didn't happen until 1999 on The WB. Dawson's Creek character Jack (Kerr Smith) finally got some lip action from Ethan (Adam Kaufman).

2003: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

In 2003, reality TV was forever changed by the premiere of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The show helped redefine Bravo as a network and opened up the eyes of millions of viewers.

2004: The L-Word

Showtime's hit lesbian drama ran for six seasons, kicking off in January 2004.

2005: Romy and Michele: In the Beginning

Many people would like to forget about this TV movie prequel to the classic Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, but the panned flick (which starred Katherine Heigl!) that aired on ABC Family made history by feature Alexandra Billings of Transparent fame as the first openly transgender woman to play a transgender character on TV.

2007: As the World Turns

Men were kissing in primetime long before daytime finally got on board, but the soaps caught up in 2007 when As the World Turns featured the first-ever gay kiss between two male characters, Luke Snyder (Van Hansis) and Noah Mayer (Jake Silbermann).

2008: Rachel Maddow

The MSNBC anchor became the first openly gay anchor of a primetime program on a major news network.

2009: Glee

Glee, created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, premieres in May of 2009. The show would go on to break records—and stereotypes—during its six-season run.

2009: All My Children

The soap staged the first same-sex legal wedding in daytime TV history when Bianca Montgomery (Eden Riegel) and Reese Williams (Tamara Braun) tied the knot.

2012: The New Normal

The New Normal, starring Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells, Georgia King, Bebe Wood, NeNe Leakes, Jayson Blair and Ellen Barkin, lasted one season on NBC. Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler's sitcom followed a gay couple and their surrogate.

2014: Good Luck Charlie

The first same-sex couple was featured on a network targeted to kids in an episode of Good Luck Charlie on Disney.

2014: Laverne Cox

The Orange Is the New Black star became  the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an acting Emmy award.

2014: The Normal Heart

Ryan Murphy brought Larry Kramer's acclaimed play to screen with the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons in leading roles. It took home the Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie.

2014: Transparent

Amazon broke new ground with Transparent, its dramedy from Jill Soloway starring Jeffrey Tambor as a father who comes out as transgender. The show was met with rave reviews and will return for a second season.

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Happy anniversary, Ellen!