ISSUE DATE: Apr. 14, 1997
What she hasn’t been able to bring herself to do, until now, is use the word gay along with “I am” in public. Indeed, for a lot of men and women whose livelihood depends on the goodwill of millions, those may be the three scariest words in the English language. “I always thought I could keep my personal life separate from my professional life,” says DeGeneres while sitting in a patio at her home in Beverly Hills. “In every interview I ever did”–she’s squinting, too polite to interrupt this one even though the sun is clearly in her eyes—”everyone tried to trap me into saying I was gay. And I learned every way to dodge that. Or if they just blatantly asked me, I would say I don’t talk about my personal life. I mean, I really tried to figure out every way to avoid answering that question for as long as I could.”
That became a lot harder last September when the news leaked, unintentionally by all accounts, that DeGeneres wanted to have the character she plays on Ellen, her three-year-old ABC sitcom, discover that she–the character, that is—is a lesbian. For DeGeneres, 39, the decision was the culmination of a long process of struggling with feelings about her own sexuality, her fears about being rejected for it, her wish to lead a more honest and open life in public, her weariness at the effort it took her not to. For the public, the news was a sensation: a gay lead on TV–that would be a first, and to those who attach importance to these sorts of things, either a long time coming or another way station on the road to moral abandon.
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