HE CALLED ME ELLEN DEGENERATE?

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In an exclusive interview with TIME, Ellen DeGeneres talks about coming out, staying in and not wanting to be "the lesbian actress"

TIME: So, for the record, are you yourself gay?

Ellen DeGeneres: Yes. You're the first person that I've--I mean I knew that I was going to--that was one of the things when I decided to have my character on the show come out, I knew I was going to have to come out too. But I didn't want to talk about it until the show was done. And you know, I watched my friend Melissa [Etheridge] come out, and she became "the lesbian rock star." I never wanted to be "the lesbian actress." I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Ever. I did it for my own truth.

TIME: Why now?

DeGeneres: I don't think I could have done this a long time ago, and I don't think people would have accepted it as readily as they do now. Now I feel comfortable with myself, and I don't have to be fearful about something damaging my career if it gets out, because now I'm in control of it--sort of. No one can hurt me now.

TIME: What was harder, this or coming out to your family?

DeGeneres: This. I mean, I don't understand a fear of coming out to your friends and family. I've been really lucky. I have a really great family. I have parents who understand. My mother understands, now even more so. My father is supportive. My dad said the most hilarious thing when I told him what I was going to do on the show. He said, "You're not going to go all flamboyant, are ya?" I was like, "Yeah, Dad, I'm going to completely change. I'm going to start wearing leather vests. I'm going to get one of those haircuts that they all have."

TIME: Is being gay something you struggled with?

DeGeneres: No. I ignored it because I didn't really know what it was until I was 18 years old. I dated guys. I liked guys. But I knew that I liked girls too. I just didn't know what to do with that. I thought, "If I were a guy I'd go out with her." And then I thought, "Well, I don't want to be a guy, really." So I went, "Oh, well," and just went on with my life. My first gay experience was literally someone else's idea--I was freaked out even by the thought of it. And I thought that was one experience and it was just her, and I started dating guys again, thinking, "Well, I just need to meet the right one." Never could, really.

TIME: So when did you finally give up?

DeGeneres: Let's see, today's April what...? No, I questioned it up until probably eight years ago or so. But I haven't gone out with a guy since I was 20. [She's now 39.]

TIME: Are you involved with anybody now?

DeGeneres: I just met somebody. This appears to be something I want to last forever, if it can.

TIME: Now that you're out, are you mad that X or Y in the entertainment industry isn't out too?

DeGeneres: No, no. I don't care what X or Y does. I didn't do it to make a political statement. I did it selfishly for myself and because I thought it was a great thing for the show, which desperately needed a point of view. If other people come out, that's fine. I mean, it would be great if for no other reason than just to show the diversity, so it's not just the extremes. Because unfortunately those are the people who get the most attention on the news. You know, when you see the parades and you see dykes on bikes or these men dressed as women. I don't want to judge them. I don't want to come off like I'm attacking them--the whole point of what I'm doing is acceptance of everybody's differences. It's just that I don't want them representing the entire gay community, and I'm sure they don't want me representing them. We're individuals. It's like seeing scary heterosexuals on talk shows--it's like saying Joey Buttafuoco represents the heterosexual population.

TIME: You were a stand-up comic before you started your sitcom. That must have been a difficult profession for someone closeted.

DeGeneres: You can imagine the fag jokes. When I started headlining, it was always guys on before me. I would always follow somebody doing either dyke jokes or fag jokes and doing the lisp thing and the audience is going crazy and laughing. I just thought, "Oh God. What if they pick up that I'm gay?" It was that fear and shame. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I never felt like I belonged to the gay community, I never felt like I belonged to the straight community. I've really felt like this in-between. I watched the whole Gay Pride march in Washington in 1993, and I wept when I saw that. I mean I cried so hard, thinking, "I wish I could be there," because I never felt like I belonged anywhere.

TIME: Jerry Falwell called you Ellen DeGenerate.

DeGeneres: Really, he called me that? Ellen DeGenerate? I've been getting that since the fourth grade. I guess I'm happy I could give him work.

TIME: It must be odd having your sexuality a subject of national debate.

DeGeneres: Yeah. That's why I want to get beyond this. I mean, I understand the curiosity and I understand the not understanding of it. Because I didn't understand for a long time, and I'm still struggling to--I have the same problems that a lot of people do. But let's get beyond this, and let me get back to what I do. Maybe I'll find something even bigger to do later on. Maybe I'll become black.