Sunday is the 20th anniversary of “The Puppy Episode,” when Ellen Degeneres’ character, Ellen Morgan, came out on national network television. There’s a lot of content out there about it; about how it changed the landscape of American television and culture. AfterEllen was a website for queer women, but it drew that line in the sand. Things were different before April 1997.
It’s funny the things we remember. I’ve been listening to a lot of Fun Home lately, and the idea of histories and memories coming back around to us as circles that define our life has crawled inside my brain. I remember that spring, 20 years ago, in little snippets. I remember Ellen. And I remember the girl I had a crush on.
This girl I had a crush on was smart and infuriating and a very conservative Christian. She was my lab partner in biology, and she bemusedly agreed to let me name the fetal pig we were dissecting Wilbur. She gave me a bracelet that said “What Would Jesus Do” that I found so hilariously ironic I wore it every single day. I imagine she thought she was getting through to me.
She was the person who first told me that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve (my response, if I recall it correctly, involved Lilith and was not well taken). We got kicked out of the library for arguing which, for two honors students such as ourselves, was probably scandalous in the way stupid high school things can be.
And there was nothing more I wanted to do in the spring of 1997, closeted teenage lesbian that I was, than consume and assimilate the life of Ellen Degeneres. She was a national talking point, and everyone knew about what was going on, and everyone had an opinion, and I wanted to take in every moment, because it felt like suddenly I was real. Oh, I’d watched some movies featuring queer women (the ones I could find, listened to Melissa Etheridge, and lurked on some AOL message boards, but those felt niche. Small.
I remember stalking the aisles, hovering around the issue before finally plucking it from the shelf. Turning the cover towards my body so no one would see it as I snuck back to my table. Hiding it behind a pile of books so I could read it without anyone knowing. There was nothing scarier than the idea of being found out. That’s what a world of invisibility teaches us. Better to be nothing.
I read the article several times, probably. I stared at the pictures. Later, I watched the Oprah special. The night “The Puppy Episode” aired, I watched alone in my living room, recording it on VHS so I could watch over and over again (and I did). Nothing major changed in my life when Ellen (and Ellen) came out. But something major changed in the world around me. I could feel it even then, reading the Time magazine article in the library, sitting across from the girl I had a crush on who I’d never tell about it. My world felt broader, more open. Like there was a place for me in it.
Twenty years later. I’m so proud of who I am, of my queerness. I resist a movement to put us back into closets, to make us invisible again, to murder us. We’ve come so far in twenty years. We have so far to go.
This post isn’t funny, but Ellen was funny. Ellen is funny. I’m funny. So much of my humor was informed by her (I watched the show from its first season; I’ve recently rewatched the last season and have been shocked by how much of myself I see there). I’m a little lost in nostalgia and too often nostalgia is dramatic. So I’ll leave you with Ellen’s sexy voice when she asks out a lady for the first time.