It’s been two decades since Ellen DeGeneres first said, “I’m gay,” on national television.
On Friday’s episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the 59-year-old comedian celebrated the 20th anniversary of “The Puppy” episode of her ’90s sitcom, where her character came out as a lesbian. To mark the occasion, DeGeneres invited the cast of the series onto her talk show, along with Oprah Winfrey and Laura Dern, who both guest starred in the episode, and her wife, Portia de Rossi.
“My character, Ellen Morgan, came out as a lesbian, and I, Ellen DeGeneres, came out at the same time,” she announced on her talk show. “It was the first time a lead character had come out.”
“I can’t tell you how challenging it was to get this episode made, and at the time, it was so controversial,” she tearfully explained. “It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life, and I would not change one moment of it because it led me to be exactly where I am today, standing in front of you, which is a joy.”
DeGeneres said she picked Winfrey to play the role of her therapist to “legitimize” the episode. The Queen of Talk said she didn’t even think of how being a part of the episode would impact her life. “I just said ‘yes,’ because I so believed in your truth,” she told DeGeneres. “And I wanted to support you.”
“You wouldn’t have been able to open people’s hearts and touch hearts and minds and make a difference in the world had you not had the courage to do that,” Winfrey added.
Dern recalled playing DeGeneres’ love interest on the show, and what a “privilege and an honor” it was to take on the role. DeGeneres noted that the actress didn’t work for a year due to the backlash that came after the episode aired, but Dern has no regrets.
“There’s no greater gift than being the person that was with you and looking in your eyes as you said those words,” she said. “I remember us literally holding each other up through this emotional moment. It was so profound and I feel so blessed that I got to be there and witness that.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama also recognized the TV personality for her courage in a pre-recorded message. “Seriously, Ellen, congratulations on the 20th anniversary of announcing to the world who you really are,” she gushed. “Time and again you have shown us what love really means. You are brave, you are kind — you are a terrible person to go shopping with — and I absolutely adore you. Congratulations again. Love you much.”
After the “Puppy” episode aired in 1997, DeGeneres spoke exclusively with ET about what it was like to come out on her sitcom. “You keep hearing the question. You know, ‘Is America ready?’ ‘Was America ready?’” she said. “You know, I don’t think anybody’s ever ready for whenever anybody’s first to do something.”
Here’s more of our interview with DeGeneres: