Activists in the US are commemorating the impact of comedienne and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out. Throughout the month of April, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) will be celebrating the landmark 10-year anniversary of the event.

DeGeneres appeared on the April 14, 1997, cover of Time magazine with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay.” Her onscreen character, Ellen Morgan, would come out as well during the April 30, 1997, episode of the ABC sitcom Ellen. Though performers like Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang had come out years prior, it was unprecedented that both an actor and such a high-profile television character would come out simultaneously.

“Ellen coming out ten years ago kicked off a tremendous decade of visibility for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” says GLAAD President Neil G. Giuliano. “Ellen opened the closet door for shows like Will & Grace, The L Word and Ugly Betty to succeed, and for other out performers to live their lives openly and honestly. We know that with this kind of visibility comes understanding and acceptance.”

In 2005, the University of Minnesota released three separate studies which concluded that exposure to positive depictions of gay television characters reduces prejudice. Polls have shown a shift in public opinion over the past decade about issues relating to gays and lesbians. A 1996 Pew Research poll found 65 percent of respondents opposed same-sex marriage, versus 56 percent ten years later. Also in 2006, Pew found 48 percent oppose allowing gays to adopt, down from 57 percent in 1999.

In late 1996, when GLAAD received the news that DeGeneres’ Ellen character would be coming out that season, it launched a “Let Ellen Out!” campaign to create grassroots support and developed “Ellen Watch,” a Web page dedicated to following the title character’s journey in her coming out process. For the April 30, 1997, episode, entitled The Puppy Episode, GLAAD organized “Come Out With Ellen” house parties in more than 1,500 households nationwide, inviting fans to support DeGeneres and one another.

While anti-gay activists launched their own campaign to keep the episode from airing, only one affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to show the historic episode. GLAAD worked with Birmingham Pride Alabama to help 3,000 local fans see the banned telecast via satellite. Ultimately, 42 million people tuned in to The Puppy Episode, making it the most-watched program of the week — and ABC’s most-watched program of the season. The episode went on to win an Emmy® for Outstanding Writing and a Peabody Award, and the series was awarded a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV Comedy Series.

DeGeneres’ courage to come out in such a public forum has undoubtedly helped countless people come out as well to live open and honest lives. Grey’s Anatomy actor T.R. Knight appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show as a guest on January 17, 2007. He talked about his own experience in coming out, crediting DeGeneres for paving the way for others like him to come out as well.

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