Twenty years ago today Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet on the April 14, 1997, cover of TIME magazine to the surprise of almost everyone—and the uproar it caused would seem almost inconceivable today.
It’s hard to remember a time before Ellen was the reigning queen of daytime talk shows, a time before she was America’s sweetheart. But in 1997, when the notion of two women or two men getting “gay married” seemed fantastically far-fetched—a practical impossibility—Ellen because the most controversial person in America when she came out in a long interview with TIME‘s Bruce Handy.
From the interview:
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.
Shortly thereafter Ellen went on Oprah’s daytime talk show and was denounced by a bunch of nice-looking mid-western mom types, with their overabundance of denim and vaguely moist-looking perms. Oh, the ’90s…