In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres leaned into an airport microphone as her character Ellen Morgan to tell Laura Dern’s Susan “I’m gay.” The historical and iconic episode of Ellen threatened to end the careers of both actors, with the series ending the next year in Season 5. Now 20 years later, the TV landscape is divided into two eras: before and after Ellen came out.
The highly anticipated “Puppy Episode” pulled in 42 million viewers on April 30, 1997, the highest in the shows’ history, and took home a Peabody Award, a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing, and earned DeGeneres her first of many GLAAD awards.
The episode was met with intense reactions on both sides. Some advertisers declined buying their usual commercials during the show, while others pulled out for the remainder of the season. On the other side, viewing parties were held to celebrate the historic TV and human rights milestone.
The character of Ellen Morgan, along with DeGeneres, who also came out the same day on The Oprah Winfrey Show, paved the way for many series to follow, including Will And Grace and Glee.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking “Puppy Episode” on Ellen, we’re taking at look at some of the most moving and honest coming out experiences on TV.
Show: Pretty Little Liars
Air Date: Season 1, January 2011
Scene: Like many people in real life, the character of Emily came out in waves, first to her friends and later to her parents. In the Season 1 episode “Moments Later,” Emily’s parents are divided on their reaction to their daughters’ news, with Emily’s father relieved the secret she’s been keeping isn’t that she’s on drugs, while her mother is convinced that someone ‘made her this way.’ Eventually, both parents are supportive of Emily and her relationships.
Reaction: Pretty Little Liars producer and show runner I. Marlene King wanted to make sure that Emily represented someone like herself – a gay woman who was not defined by her sexuality. While Emily’s coming out initially takes some adjustment for her characters’ mother, being gay is not a feature that defines Emily, aside from the character having girlfriends. Instead, her romantic relationships are treated the same way as the relationships of the straight Liars on the series. Emily’s story line has earned Pretty Little Liars four GLAAD Award nominations for Outstanding Drama Series.
Show: The Simpsons
Air Date: Season 27, April 2016
Scene: In an attempt to smooth things over with his new boss in “The Burns Cage,” Homer invites Smithers to a party at his house attended mostly by gay men, including George Takei.
Reaction: Twenty-seven seasons of lead-up is a lot for any character/real life person.
Air Date: Season 1, September 1999
Scene: In the episode “Preggers,” Kurt joins the football team to help impress his father Burt, and later in the episode comes out to his father. Although Burt is a tough, blue collar worker, a stark contrast to his son, who loves make-up and musicals, Burt reassures Kurt that he’s known his son was gay since he was 3-years-old and will always love him.
Reaction: While Kurt’s coming out was a monumental episode for the hugely popular Glee, showing the teen character having sex for the first time, in Season 2 with boyfriend Blaine, represented an even bigger milestone in TV history. Kurt and Blaine were one of the first, and youngest, same-sex couples to have sex on a highly rated series, giving their young fan-base of millions the chance to see themselves represented on screen.
MARCO DEL ROSSI
Show: Degrassi: The Next Generation
Air Date: Season 3, October 2003
Scene: High school student Marco enlisted the help of his friend Ellie to pose as his girlfriend, but when she was no longer willing to cover for her friend, Marco finally came out in “Pride 1,” telling his macho friend Spinner that he’s gay.
Reaction: Marco’s coming out quickly became an iconic moment for fans of the Canadian series, and even helped actor Adamo Ruggiero come out publicly years later. In 2016, 13 years after Ruggiero had his coming out scene as Marco opposite to Shane Kippel’s Spinner, the two friends recreated the scene. It does get better, and sometimes funnier.
Show: My So-Called Life
Air Date: Season 1, January 1995
Scene: The teenage character Delia seemed to be missing the signs that her crush Rickie was gay, but in the series finale of My So-Called Life, Delia tells Rickie she developed feelings for him knowing he wouldn’t hurt her. The scene gave Rickie the opportunity to be open with himself, and someone else, for the first time.
Reaction: Though we only had one season of My So-Called Life, its impact is still felt today. Wilson Cruz’s Rickie Vasquez coming out in the series finale gave closure to the character, and cemented the short-lived series in TV and LGBTQ history.
Show: Dawson’s Creek
Air Date: Season 2, February 1999
Scene: In “That Is The Question,” Jack McPhee has a tearful coming out to his strict father, forcing his family to confront an issue that up to that point he had been battling with himself.
Reaction: Dawson’s Creek waded through uncharted territory a number of times in its six seasons, and that included Jack’s coming out. A popular football player with a pretty girlfriend, Jack wasn’t what many viewers expected from a gay character, with McPhee becoming a visual reminder that being gay doesn’t look a specific way. Jack’s kiss with the character Ethan in Season 3 became the first gay kiss on network television, with show creator Kevin Williams basing the character of Jack on himself.
Show: Ugly Betty
Air Date: Season 4, April 2010
Scene: Mark Indelicato started on Ugly Betty as precocious 11-year-old Justin Suarez, but four years later while dancing at his mother’s wedding in the episode “The Past Presents The Future,” the young actor allowed his dance moves to be his voice, telling the world once and for all that he is gay.
Reaction: Indelicato said that during his time on Ugly Betty, most fan mail he received from viewers was from people thanking him for giving them a place to fit in. “My fan mail is mostly kids, especially kids that don’t really fit in and people don’t really understand them,” said Indelicato in a 2007 interview. “They go, ‘Thank you, because you’re helping me to be understood by my peers,’ and anybody else who doesn’t understand them. That touches me. I’m glad that I’m reaching such a large amount of people.”
Show: Grey’s Anatomy
Air Date: Season 6, October 2009
Scene: Being an adult and a successful surgeon didn’t make the character Callie Torres any less scared of coming out to her religious parents. In the episode “Invasion,” Callie’s father brings a priest to the hospital where she works to condemn Callie. While Callie’s quoting of Jesus doesn’t change her father’s mind, meeting Callie’s girlfriend Arizona does.
Reaction: The character of Callie Torres remained on Grey’s Anatomy until Season 12, dating and eventually marrying another female member of the cast, showcasing both the specific struggles of gay marriage and the same struggles that straight couples face.
Air Date: Season 1, February 2015
Scene: In the episode “Lyon’s Roar,” eldest son Jamal Lyon comes out in front of his friends and family by changing the words of his family’s hit song “You’re So Beautiful” to reflect a same-sex relationship. The move elicits support from most of his family, and causes Jamal’s father Lucious to have flashbacks of punishing Jamal as a child when he suspected he was gay.
Reaction: Inspired by singer Frank Ocean’s use of song lyrics to come out, “Lyon’s Roar” showed the often unseen experience of a young gay black man on prime time TV, giving viewers the opportunity to see someone like themselves on the screen.