Ellen DeGeneres received an enthusiastic welcome at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's awards dinner Saturday evening, but opted not to mention that her character in the ABC series "Ellen" will come out as a lesbian.
The comic's manager, however, discussed the issue in an interview before the Beverly Hilton Hotel ceremony, where DeGeneres presented an award to singer k.d. lang.
ABC is expected to officially announce today that DeGeneres' character, Ellen Morgan, will "come out" on her 4-year-old comedy in late April. Actress Laura Dern ("Jurassic Park") rearranged her schedule to play the woman with whom Ellen falls in love, with Oprah Winfrey to appear as Ellen's therapist.
While there are more than two dozen gay or lesbian series regulars in prime time already, Ellen Morgan becomes the first openly homosexual series star, which some see as a breakthrough.
"There's always a risk when you do something different, but there's a lot to be gained as well," said DeGeneres' manager, Arthur Imparato.
Imparato added that he expects the change to be a "nonevent" from a ratings standpoint, with any viewers alienated by the decision likely to be supplanted by those inspired to sample the show because of its new direction.
"It's about people accepting everyone's differences and originality. That's what makes our nation," he said, likening the coming-out plot to past TV barriers--from showing a married couple in bed together to greater inclusion of minorities--which, once breached, became commonplace in time.
Despite a large media turnout Saturday, DeGeneres chose to address the issue only in the most oblique terms. "I am very proud to be here," she told the nearly 1,000 attendees, quipping about lang, "I think I was as surprised as anyone when I found out two days ago that she is gay."
Joking that it might be "a phase," DeGeneres added, "When you have a phase and stick to it, it becomes a way of life, which is my motto. I hope to do the same."
For her part, lang--who revealed that she's a lesbian some time ago--drew a big laugh from the crowd by saying, "I'd like to thank Ellen for coming out . . . tonight."
In addition to Saturday's event, DeGeneres is among a number of celebrities scheduled to appear at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's annual media awards in Los Angeles on March 16.
Immediately before lang's tribute, the night's other honoree, breast cancer activist Dr. Susan Love, took her "role model" award to heart by urging gay men and lesbians to be honest about their sexual orientation, citing the "health benefits" of such openness. "Being in the closet takes a terrible toll on your spirit," she said. "Stress is not healthy. Denying reality is not healthy."
Gay & Lesbian Center Executive Director Lorri L. Jean also pointed to progress gay men and lesbians have made, including an increased presence in TV programs, but added, "Despite the distance we've traveled, we still must face the fact [that] every baby born today lesbian or gay will grow up fighting ignorance."