Her announcement was followed shortly after by another big coming out – the character she played on primetime sitcom Ellen, which made her the first main character to be openly gay on an American TV show.
Now, to mark the 20th anniversary of her coming out, Ellen has opened up about the struggles she faced as a young actor, revealing that she was “carrying around a lot of shame” when it came to her sexuality.
She told the Associated Press: “No matter how many times I tried to rationalise that I didn’t need anyone to know, I knew that it was a secret.
“It became more important to me than my career. I suddenly said, ‘Why am I being ashamed of who I am just to be successful and famous in society’s eyes?’
“And then I thought, the character on the show is clearly struggling. There’s no relationship. It was pretty clear it would be an easy transition for her to realise she was gay, which was why her relationships with men weren’t working out.”
Ellen went on to explain that ABC Studios were initially reluctant to air the coming out scene, and that there were “closed-door meetings” with scripts shredded or locked away at the end of every day to keep the secret safe.
“I knew I was risking my career,” she said, “but to know that [straight actor] Laura Dern was punished for it just because she played my love interest in that show is crazy. And Oprah got hate mail just for being a part of it.
“Obviously, that’s why a lot of people don’t come out… because a lot of people don’t understand it, and because they don’t understand it they fear it, and because they fear it they hate it.
“But I had no idea the amount of hate. I had no idea that there would be death threats or a bomb scare. It was a really scary time.”
She continued: “Nobody really understood how dark it got for me. I was really, really in a deep depression. I had never been so down in my life. I was broke. I felt attacked. It was everything that you just fear in life, like nobody loving you.
“For me to crawl out of that and accomplish what I’ve accomplished… [it] makes me realise that no matter how dark something gets, that there’s always a possibility of good coming from it.
“You just have to hold on and know that some good will come from it and there’s always a lesson in everything.”
Rewatch the famous coming out scene from Ellen, which saw over 44 million viewers tune in, below.