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Different media have different thresholds for scandal. Controversy in the movies might mean making a film that glorifies one of the nation's most repugnant pornographers. Controversy in literature might mean writing a memoir about the affair you had with your father when you were in your 20s. In television, which functions not just as a business and debased art form but also as an increasingly fractured nation's de facto mirror of itself, the threshold is much lower. Controversy could mean starring in a sitcom as a gently scatterbrained former bookstore owner who, after years of adult floundering, reluctantly comes to a realization about her homosexuality and begins to take a few hesitant baby steps out of the closet and toward getting a life.

"I hate that term 'in the closet,'" says Ellen DeGeneres, the aforementioned sitcom star whose all-pants wardrobe and sometimes awkward chemistry with male ingenues was provoking curiosity from fans and reporters long before her sexuality became a minor national obsession. "Until recently I hated the word lesbian too," she continues. "I've said it enough now that it doesn't bother me. But lesbian sounded like somebody with some kind of disease. I didn't like that, so I used the word gay more often."

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.

Or maybe it was just something to gossip about. In a series of TV interviews last fall, previously scheduled to promote a new CD but suddenly subjected to intense scrutiny because of the coming-out rumors, DeGeneres joked awkwardly that she was Lebanese, or that the real news was that a character named Les Bian would be joining Ellen's cast. She even kidded her own teasing reticence on an episode of The Larry Sanders Show that had her hopping into bed for man-woman sex with the fictional male talk-show host.

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