Comedian Ellen DeGeneres on Friday commented the 20-year anniversary of her coming out, an historical TV moment that came to define her career and shape the conversation surrounding gay rights.
“I’m Ellen and I’m gay,” DeGeneres said, as the audience applauded. “20 years ago I said that, it was a much bigger deal then,” she added.
In 1997, DeGeneres starred “Ellen,” a sitcom about a stand-up comedian and bookstore owner named Ellen Morgan. After petitioning the network for almost a year, DeGeneres convinced executives to let Ellen the character come out as gay—a move that coincided with her own personal coming out.
DeGeneres noted her decision was “controversial” and eventually culminated in her show’s cancellation.
“It was hard,” DeGeneres admitted. “I lost everything, and I got to be stripped of everything and start over again. And that was a wonderful gift, to be able to start all over again and to realize that I was strong enough to come back.”
DeGeneres didn’t just come back. Last November, former President Barack Obama awarded the comedian the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“It’s easy to forget now when we’ve come so far where now marriage is equal under the law,” Obama said during that ceremony. “Just how important it was, not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light, someone we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor or colleague or sister, challenge our own assumptions, remind us that we have more in common than we realize, push our country in the direction of justice.”
“What an incredible burden that was to bear,” Obama added.
Describing her coming out to the audience, DeGeneres teared up.
“It was the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do in my life,” she said. “And I wouldn’t change one moment of it because it lead me exactly to where I am today, standing in front of all of you—which is a joy.”
“It means the world to me,” she added.
Watch the video below, via The Ellen Show: