When 'Ellen' came out: 20 years later, what's changed, what hasn't

Gay Rights History
Ellen DeGeneres (left) and Oprah Winfrey during the taping of a scene from the April 30, 1997, episode of "Ellen" in which DeGeneres' character, Ellen Morgan, came out as gay. Winfrey played her therapist.

On April 30, 1997, the Philadelphia Daily News sent me to Birmingham, Ala., to watch a TV show.

I'd already seen, and reviewed, the two-part installment of the ABC sitcom Ellen that producers coyly titled "The Puppy Episode" and wasn't overwhelmed. "The world will not turn upside down tonight when Ellen Morgan [Ellen DeGeneres] finally blurts out the words, 'I'm gay,' on network television," I wrote. "While the moment provides a nice boost for every woman and man who's ever had to say that to a parent, a friend, or a potential lover, it is, in Television Land terms, the very epitome of an anticlimax, which is to say that we all saw it coming and no one is left totally satisfied."

I honestly don't remember feeling quite as grumpy as that sounds, although I was a little nervous about my first trip to Alabama.

Birmingham had gotten on our managing editor's radar for its ABC affiliate's refusal to air the episode, and for the satellite-feed viewing party that became the only way more than 2,000 people from the greater Birmingham area were able to count themselves among the estimated 42 million who saw what would become, by far, Ellen's most-watched episode. (Wondering what all the fuss was about? The network's posted the show on its app, in the "Throwback" section. Look for "The Puppy Episode" under Season 4.)

It turned out to be a wonderful, eye-opening visit to a city that had undergone many changes in the decades since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." I loved that 37-year-old Kevin Snow, who'd organized what was being called the largest gay and lesbian event in Alabama history, wasn't bitter, just worried that the TV station's decision would reflect badly on his state.

"The people in Alabama really aren't backwards. We usually just don't answer when people tell us what to do," Snow, who, sadly, died of a heart attack in 2010, told me at the time.

Birmingham's Boutwell Auditorium was a joyous place that night, even if the only person DeGeneres' character kissed on screen was male. "There were," I wrote, "men and women ranging in age from their teens to their 60s. Women in wheelchairs. Men in cowboy hats. Women in jeans and work shirts (many) or dresses (a few). Men in spiffy suits (many) or dresses (a very few)."

I was reminded of television's power to make people feel included, wherever they lived.

I thought of that again a few days ago, when Caitlyn Jenner's book tour took her to daytime's Live with Kelly, where the world's most famous transwoman made a pretty pointed pitch to be not just another guest, but one of the guests with whom South Jersey's Kelly Ripa has been cohosting since Michael Strahan left the show almost a year ago.

Read more: Caitlyn Jenner pitches herself to cohost Live

Nothing I've seen in Jenner's recent appearances makes me think she's necessarily host material -- Ripa's so good she makes the job look easy, and even she appeared to be struggling a little with Jenner's need to control the conversation -- but I understand why the former I Am Cait star would want the gig, if only for an episode or two.

Daytime talk is where DeGeneres found a place for the authentic voice to which her two so-so sitcoms never quite did justice. More important, to host is to get to display one's curiosity, not merely be a curiosity.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Friday was to mark the anniversary with an hourlong celebration of the two-part episode that was set to include both guest stars Laura Dern and Oprah Winfrey and former Ellen cast members Joely Fisher, Clea Lewis, and David Anthony Higgins.

Television still had plenty of mixed messages about sexuality in 1997, a year in which I also interviewed Dr. Drew Pinsky, who was then on MTV's Loveline, attempting to counter cohost Adam Carolla's occasional homophobic banter with statements of tolerance. "Coming to a mature homosexual presentation can be a very healthy thing," said Pinsky, who probably wouldn't feel the need to spell that out now.

Ellen Morgan's coming out didn't change TV, or real life, overnight. Ellen was an important point on a timeline that includes Wilson Cruz's 1994-95 portrayal of gay teen Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life, a lesbian wedding on Friends in 1996, and, of course, Will & Grace, which is expected back on NBC next season.

Eventually, Ellen DeGeneres became a popular Oscars host. Women kissed women, men kissed men. An alarming number of lesbian characters died. ABC programmed a sitcom, The Real O'Neals, about a Roman Catholic family whose middle child is gay.

In its forecast for the current TV season, the media monitoring group GLAAD reported "the highest percentage of LGBTQ series regular characters on broadcast television ... since expanding our count to gather more comprehensive data 12 years ago."

Most of those characters are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but transgender actors and characters are turning up in greater numbers. The emails and phone calls I once got about gay characters have largely stopped, replaced by those from people disturbed by mentions of transgender ones.

Even though CBS's Katherine Heigl series, Doubt, which had featured Orange Is the New Black's Laverne Cox as a regular, was pulled from the schedule in February after only two low-rated episodes, a point was made. Trans people can play TV lawyers. (They're just probably better off not doing so on a show in which a colleague, played by Heigl, is improbably falling for a client who may be a murderer.)

Read more: Laverne Cox as a trans lawyer on CBS signals a transition

Trans people can also play CBS's Survivor, as we learned in mid-April, when contestant Jeff Varner, who happens to be gay, outed competitor Zeke Smith as transgender. The ensuing outcry about what was widely seen as a violation of Smith's privacy -- he was on his second edition of the show and hadn't chosen to share this information publicly -- spoke volumes about changing attitudes.

On Thursday, MTV announced that Asia Kate Dillon (Billions) would present the first award on its 2017 Movie & TV Awards show next Sunday, for best actor. (There won't be separate categories for male and female performers.) Like her Billions character, Taylor, who prefers the pronouns they, theirs, and them, Dillon identifies as neither a man nor a woman.

Are there things about that that I find awkward to write about? Sure. But Taylor's a terrific character who's made television, and my job, more interesting.

Just as Ellen did 20 years ago in Birmingham.