Ellen DeGeneres remembers the night she nearly gave up comedy because of sexism from the crowd and from her fellow comics.
“There was two guys on before me and their stuff was very homophobia, slamming women in every kind of way,” DeGeneres, recalling one of her early stand-up performances, says in “Firsts,” TIME’s multimedia project featuring candid interviews with 46 groundbreaking women. “No one knew that I was gay necessarily, it was just a very angry, testosterone-filled crowd by the time I got on stage.
“The entire front row of guys got up and turned their chairs around and faced the audience,” she says. “It was a night that I thought I would never do comedy again, and I don’t know where those guys are now, but they didn’t get the medal of freedom.”
DeGeneres came out publicly on the cover of TIME in 1997. Her character Ellen Morgan on the show Ellen came out not long after, amid intense speculation and a big public relations push, making her the first person to star as an openly gay character on prime-time television.
“I was warned by my publicist at the time, everybody said we could destroy this show,” she says. “But it’s my life.”
“Leading up to coming out I wasn’t trying to be political, I wasn’t trying to be an activist,” DeGeneres adds. “When I did it just [made] sense that the character would come out. And it was just the greatest thing that happened because it sent me on a different trajectory, and here I am now and there’s no secrets. I’m not ashamed of anything.”
See more of “Firsts,” TIME’s multimedia project featuring candid interviews with 46 groundbreaking women.