It was 20 years ago, on the April 14, 1997, cover of TIME magazine that Ellen DeGeneres, then the star of the sitcom Ellen, confirmed something she’d been building up to for decades: “Yep,” as the cover put it, “I’m gay.”
As Bruce Handy explained in the accompanying article, the announcement shocked more people than it surprised - both Ellen DeGeneres the comedian and Ellen Morgan, her sitcom character, had been the subject of some curiosity on that front for years. She had dodged interview questions by insisting on a sharp distinction between her public and private life, but word that she was planning to have Ellen Morgan come out of the closet had leaked months before the episode aired.
What was shocking, then, was that DeGeneres (and her show’s overlords at ABC) was willing to risk the public’s reaction. She would be playing the first gay lead character on American network television. Some sponsors announced they would pull ads from the show - including J.C. Penney, ironically, as that company would later hire DeGeneres for an ad campaign that would in turn draw its own controversy - and the nation debated whether the show would “legitimize” a facet of life that was still marginalized, or if it merely proved that homosexuality was already accepted by enough of the population that such a plot twist was possible.
When DeGeneres sat down with TIME to talk it over, this was her take on the matter:
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.Read the rest of the interview and see the full issue here, in the TIME Vault: The Ellen DeGeneres Exclusive
TIME readers responded with a wide range of reactions, from commending her bravery to calling the article “an affront to decency in general.” One offended reader summed up his response to her admission in his own three-word confirmation: “Yep, I’m done.” And, even within the story itself, experts in the television industry predicted that DeGeneres’ career would suffer.
But 20 years later, however, it’s clear that no matter how many viewers and readers guessed that DeGeneres might rue her very public coming out, she has little cause for regret. In late 2016, the (still incredibly successful) comedian received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in part for that groundbreaking decision in 1997.