I remember exactly where I was the day Ellen's "Puppy Episode" aired. It was May 1997 and that was the episode when Ellen's character famously announced, "I'm gay." I was in Aurora, Colorado at a Department of Justice hostage negotiation training, and I watched the episode from a hotel room.
I was so proud of Ellen's coming out.
One year previously, I had come out in my government job interview. "Applicant states she is a homosexual," the report read. "Confirmed with applicant's current employer and landlord that applicant is an out homosexual." This was important because it meant my homosexuality could not be used to blackmail me. Even though they could still choose not to hire me because I was gay, I was and am out and proud and had nothing to hide.
So Ellen's coming out meant a lot to me. It was clean, clear, and courageous! I personally thought the show got even better when we got to watch Ellen with her TV girlfriend. But the network didn't, and they started posting parental advisory warnings. Then they canceled the show and no one wanted to touch her.
As her character said in one of the last episodes, "Now instead of not having sex with men, I'm not having sex with women." She'd become a television leper.
Shortly thereafter her relationship with Anne Heche ended. Anne quickly married and had a child with a man. My heart went out to Ellen. I knew she'd done the right thing by coming out and being courageous, and yet it seemed like after she did her world fell apart.
Years later, in September 2001, I read an Advocate interview with her where she talked about the breakup and all the ways she struggled with having her show canceled. She talked about how she dealt with her depression and how Eckhart Tolle's book The Power of Now helped her. She said that after you've gone through a hard time, when "the next bad thing... happens you know you can deal with it."
Ellen also talked about the importance of working out, writing about your feelings, and not giving up. "If you don't push yourself than you just give up," she said. It was Ellen's endorsement of Tolle's "The Power of Now" that got me to pick up the book and I, too, found it transformative.
In the interview she also talked about her variety show. She'd filmed it and then decided to do a sitcom instead and pulled it, which I thought was smart. I thought the idea of a variety show was totally weird -- Ellen interviewing musicians and other celebrity guests sounded boring to me. In the interview, she said:
"I think everybody thinks that the network changed their mind about the variety show. It wasn't them. It was me. It was a hard sell to get somebody to decide to put money into a variety show-a show that hasn't worked in a long, long time. And people have tried. I had to convince them that I could do it and that it would be great.
My idea for it was the old-fashioned Carol Burnett. A show that was funny just for the sake of being funny. It was not mean-spirited. But the problem was that after we tried it, we started realizing that the time the Carol Burnett show was on, there weren't all these other shows to compete with, all these other channels. And I didn't know how to make it different, you know, I was just looking at it and thinking, a weekly variety show is going to be really hard."
I remember agreeing with her when I read this almost thirteen years ago, that the concept seemed silly and highly likely to fail. Well, the rest is history: her sitcom didn't last long, but the variety show soared. Her career exploded in unimaginable ways. Everyone knows her.
Even as I write this, the older Latino couple I'm chatting with told me that Ellen inspired them because of how she dealt with her break up with Anne Heche and her perseverance and humor. She gets to dance with straight women on her show (who I'm sure have a little Ellen crush), and she's married to a gorgeous actress, Portia De Rossi. Ellen gets to make people laugh for a living. She gets to showcase good deeds and interview celebrities.
We all go through challenges in life -- times where our lives fall apart, times where the things we've been working on just don't seem to come together, times of heartbreak and sadness, times that seem filled with unending loss and disappointment. When I'm having one of those moments or one of my clients is, I think about Ellen and her amazing comeback.
Ellen is an amazing and courageous LGBT role model who shows all of us how to get back up again when life has knocked you down and how to keep moving toward the horizon of your dreams. And that's what Ellen means to me.