When Ellen DeGeneres came out via her sitcom in 1997 (the famous “Puppy Episode”), it was a huge deal. ABC, the network that aired the show, did agree to another season afterwards, but with one caveat — that a parental advisory warning be aired before each new episode.
Think about that. It was so controversial to portray a queer story to a mainstream audience that the network felt obliged to warn viewers to monitor their children’s exposure to the content.
Fast forward 22 years, and shows like Glee, How To Get Away With Murder and American Horror Story make ABC’s former pearl-clutching ways seem archaic.
Ellen followed up the episode with an April 14, 1997 Time cover story with those three famous words — “Yep, I’m gay” — for the world to see.
Some sponsors, like J.C. Penny, announced afterwards they’d pull their ads from her sitcom. They couldn’t support a show with an openly gay lead character.
Check out a portion of Ellen’s interview with Time, which was released 20 years ago last week, below:
TIME: So, for the record, are you yourself gay?
Ellen DeGeneres: 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. And you know, I watched my friend Melissa [Etheridge] come out, and she became “the lesbian rock star.” 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.
TIME: Why now?
DeGeneres: I don’t think I could have done this a long time ago, and I don’t think people would have accepted it as readily as they do now. Now I feel comfortable with myself, and I don’t have to be fearful about something damaging my career if it gets out, because now I’m in control of it—sort of. No one can hurt me now.
TIME: What was harder, this or coming out to your family?
DeGeneres: This. I mean, I don’t understand a fear of coming out to your friends and family. I’ve been really lucky. I have a really great family. I have parents who understand. My mother understands, now even more so. My father is supportive. My dad said the most hilarious thing when I told him what I was going to do on the show. He said, “You’re not going to go all flamboyant, are ya?” I was like, “Yeah, Dad, I’m going to completely change. I’m going to start wearing leather vests. I’m going to get one of those haircuts that they all have.”
TIME: Is being gay something you struggled with?
DeGeneres: No. I ignored it because I didn’t really know what it was until I was 18 years old. I dated guys. I liked guys. But I knew that I liked girls too. I just didn’t know what to do with that. I thought, “If I were a guy, I’d go out with her.” And then I thought, “Well, I don’t want to be a guy, really.” So I went, “Oh, well,” and just went on with my life. My first gay experience was literally someone else’s idea – I was freaked out even by the thought of it. And I thought that was one experience and it was just her, and I started dating guys again, thinking, “Well, I just need to meet the right one.” Never could, really.
Head here to read the full interview.