The Making of an LGBTQ+ Trailblazer: How Ellen “Just Kept Swimming”

The cameras were on. The lights were positioned. The set of Ellen was prepared, and the script had been memorized. As the actors took their places, she began sweating, and her heart began racing. She stood, anxious and uncertain of what to expect immediately upon uttering the words. How would she feel–relieved to be out of the closet or afraid of what would happen to her career and her relationships? Laura Dern, who played Susan, stood next to her, flashing a quick, reassuring smile, but it wasn’t enough to relieve the nerves Ellen felt. Would anything be enough?

“Rolling,” the camera man called. The cameras began recording. The scene began. It was time.

Moments into the scene, after she struggled to speak the words, she uttered the most liberating yet most terrifying sentence: “Susan, I’m gay.”

Ellen on the set of her sitcom, becoming the first gay lead character on network TV

Awkward glances from those around her. After a few moments–a few of the longest moments–Susan smiled. Ellen knew that Laura Dern, not just her character Susan, was smiling, too. Laura and the cast were happy for her and supported her.

In that moment, Ellen Degeneres only felt a sense of complete liberation. She had set herself free from the rules of society and spoken her truth. She, however, had no idea what changes would come later in her life and how many lives she would touch. A fear overcame her. She had just done the thing that she had been most afraid to do, and it felt amazing, but what would happen next? What would happen to her career? What would happen to her relationships with friends and with family? Would she still be famous?

The news received warm love from many co-stars and viewers, but it also received rejection and antipathy from many others. TIME Magazine would release an issue with Degeneres on the front cover with the words “Yep, I’m Gay,” only causing the news of her identity to circulate more quickly. Her coming out moment inspired headlines that read “Ellen Gay Plot Sparks Outrage” and “Wendy’s spurns ‘Ellen’, calls lesbian plot too controversial.” Degeneres’s fear of losing her career slowly but surely was coming true. The threats continued. Her sense of rejection and isolation swelled. Her career seemed in question after the Ellen sitcom was cancelled the year following her coming out episode. The future was in no way certain, and the present was gloomy and discouraging.

It was in 2003 that her life changed.

Starting on September 8, 2003, The Ellen DeGeneres Show aired. Every week day, the true Ellen Degeneres appeared on TV at 4 PM, dancing up and down the aisles to upbeat music, looking stronger and more confident than ever. Each week, she held conversations with celebrities, home-town heroes, imaginative children and other influential people of the world. She invented fun and entertaining games for her guests and for her audience, including “Know or Go” and “Heads Up!” In later seasons of her show, Ellen partnered with Shutterfly to give money to charitable causes. With her constant wit, radiant smile and warm words, Ellen brought people joy, raised awareness of world issues and gave generously to the community. No longer was she a closeted lesbian, fearing the consequences of coming out on April 30, 1997. She had now begun to change her story.

During the second season of The Ellen Degeneres Show, Ellen dated Portia de Rossi, an Australian actress, model and philanthropist. De Rossi, over the years, would learn from Ellen that “the more vulnerable you are and softer you are…the happier you are and the more valuable you are to other people.” Ellen taught her wife to love herself and to live her life authentically, and De Rossi taught Ellen lessons about personal strength and resilience. “She’s so loving. She is the most loving, kind, generous person to everyone,” Ellen says about her wife in an interview. Ellen, through her happy marriage, showed the LGBTQ+ community that perseverance and courage lead to a fulfilling life. She gave people hope at a dark, heteronormative time.

“Find out who you are and be that person. That’s what your soul was put on this Earth to be. Find that truth, live that truth and everything else will come.” -Ellen Degeneres

Her show would continue for at least twelve more seasons and she would continue to use her show as a platform for positive change. Though she has received hatred, Ellen Degeneres always reminds us to “be kind to one another.” Today, Ellen Degeneres stands with many LGBT advocates who have transformed the world. Despite the fear and uncertainty she felt as she came out, she boldly expressed her truth. Her act of courage and faith inspired others to live fearlessly and to love boundlessly. Her continuous acts of love and generosity encourage people to live in harmony and, in difficult times, to “just keep swimming.”