“I had no idea the amount of hate. I had no idea that there would be death threats or a bomb scare. It was a really scary time."
On April 30, 1997, a staggering 42 million people tuned in to watch Ellen DeGeneres publicly utter the words “I’m gay” in 'The Puppy Episode' of her sitcom, Ellen. 1997 was a very different time for the LGBTI community. Barack Obama expressed this best when he presented Ellen with America's highest honour, the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, in November last year. ”It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law, just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago.”
This breathtakingly brave moment from one of the LGBTI community's most visible members is captured in all of its emotional intensity in The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s tribute video that aired on Friday. In an interview with the Associated Press, Ellen opened up about the backlash that occurred. “I had no idea the amount of hate. I had no idea that there would be death threats or a bomb scare. It was a really scary time.” The hatred became so intense that Ellen's co-stars in the episode, Laura Dern and Oprah, also became the targets of abuse. Sponsors left, ratings fell and the show ended its run in 1998. In Friday’s episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Oprah reminisced about her experience of that time. She recalled that around 900,000 calls were made to her own switchboard, with people leaving messages calling her the N word and telling her to go back to Africa. “I was never so surprised by the hatred and how loud it was,” she said, “because up until that time, I’d never had that kind of thing slamming me in the face.” Ellen recalled her own experience to the Associated Press. “Nobody really understood how dark it got for me. I was really, really in a deep depression. I had never been so down in my life. I was depressed. I was broke. I felt attacked. It was everything that you just fear in life, like nobody loving you.” “For me to crawl out of that and to accomplish what I’ve accomplished with the show and with my brand and with my production company, and to succeed after all that … (It) makes me realise that no matter how dark something gets, and no matter how bad something gets, that there’s always a possibility of good coming from it.” As someone who has struggled with my own sexuality and faced deep losses simply for being who I am, I owe Ellen a huge thank-you for living her truth so publicly. She has inspired me to be braver and to live louder and more authentically. As she said on Friday, “…we are all individual. We are all unique, and we are supposed to be that exact person, and we’re not supposed to conform. We’re not supposed to be like somebody else. We’re not supposed to act like somebody else, and as long as you stay true to exactly who you are, you will be rewarded in ways you cannot imagine.”