Leaps and Strides: The History of Gay Characters on TV
By Dana Leigh Smith
By now it’s pretty evident that our television viewing experience is vastly different than that of our parents’. Besides advancing from monotone to color, boxes to flat screens, and primetime to on-demand, our generation has achieved something way more iconic and progressive: the positive portrayal of homosexuals as leading characters on TV, not merely trusty sidekicks providing comic relief by allowing us to poke fun at their differences.
KoldCast TV’s new comedy series Acting Out follows the antics of Bogie, a young gay actor trying to avoid being typecast by “faking it straight” to everyone but his closest friends. The neurotic Bogie is wildly insecure, has a purely pastel wardrobe, and a seriously high-pitched voice. It quickly becomes clear that living a double life will be a serious challenge and the misadventures come fast and furiously.
Watch Acting Out “On Set” with Shane Houston (writer and director)
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In 1995, homosexual characters accounted for 0.6% of the TV population. Today major networks like MTV and ABC Family lead the forefront on LGBT-inclusive content with over 40% of hours including LGBT impressions. But how did we get here? Let’s take a look at some standout gay TV characters of the not-so-distant past:
Hot L Baltimore
Homosexual characters were just beginning to make their mark on television in the mid 70’s, but they were all ancillary roles that weren’t exactly championed. In fact, Norman Lear’s (All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons) first failure was also the first show to feature a gay couple, Hot L Baltimore. The missing “e” is for the rundown hotel in which the show took place, which housed prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and a big fat warning before the opening credits about its mature themes. ABC put up their “No Vacancy” sign, cancelling the show after thirteen episodes.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show
These days it’s hard to imagine Emmy-winning talk show host Ellen DeGeneres having a tough time gaining acceptance, but doesn’t a story of struggle accompany all great icons? Ellen started out in the 1994 ABC sitcom These Friends of Mine, renamed Ellen after its first season. In 1997 Ellen’s character and DeGeneres herself revealed that they were lesbians. Very meta. ABC’s affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to air the landmark episode and some of the show’s sponsors, including Chrysler, withdrew their advertising. It was the 90’s... The show was canceled the following season due to declining ratings. The same went for Ellen’s stint on CBS’s The Ellen Show, released in 2001. Ellen finally struck gold two years later with the release of her daytime talk show, Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show. That put fifteen Emmys under her belt during its first three seasons. You go girl!
Will & Grace
After Ellen was canceled in the 90’s, Will & Grace took over the role of representing gays on prime-time television with its debut in 1998 on NBC. Gay rights advocates and media critics applauded the program for its positive portrayal of two gay men, both with polar opposite personalities. In fact, just last week Vice President Biden cited the show as the most influential educational tool for debunking gay stereotypes in the last decade, before President Obama stole his thunder. Will, the first gay male lead character on network TV, was a lawyer with a masculine, straight and narrow persona. Will’s close friend Jack was extremely flamboyant, the epitome of a gay stereotype. The show used humor to break through people’s prejudices of homosexuals, and for that we salute them.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
One of the most talked-about programs of 2003 follows a team of five gay men collectively known as the “Fab Five” as they perform a makeover on a straight man’s man, revamping everything from his wardrobe and grooming to his food choices. Queer Eye put Bravo TV on the map, particularly as a gay-friendly network. The most notable cast member is Carson Kressley, who works wonders on participants’ wardrobes. Although Kressley doesn’t breakthrough many stereotypes with his flamboyant fashion statements that include zebra print shirts, hot pink lined jackets and teeny-tiny Speedos, he does transform lives with humor and flair! Some have even argued that he ushered in the whole, “it’s-in-to-be-out” era with his fearless ability to talk about his sexuality and sex life with an untouchable level of integrity. Although the show received criticism for “reverse-discrimination” or making it seem as though all gay men can cook, clean, dress, and do hair, its sheer popularity is attested by the advances made in the cultural acceptance of the gay man after it aired.
And this brings us to Fox’s Glee, the most recent television hit that has made an unsurpassed mark on our society’s acceptance and understanding of homosexuality. The cast has three main gay characters that couldn’t be any more different from one another. The most stereotype-shattering of the bunch is Sebastian, a gay villain. He’s a new type of character that audiences haven’t seen before. Although most wouldn’t pinpoint him as gay at first glance, he is not at all ashamed of his sexuality. He’s very confident and comfortable with who he is and what he wants. He’s a guy’s guy, popular, and a total lacrosse bro who just so happens to be gay. Blaine and Kurt, the other two gay characters in the show, are in a romantic relationship. They are each other’s puppy-love high school sweethearts. Glee does a great job showing that both straight and gay couples go through the same trials and tribulations that accompany first love. Kurt and Blaine’s totally normal teenage relationship is inspirational to gay youth in a way that has never been seen before.
The New Normal
Great trip down memory lane, huh? Now let’s journey to the future. This fall, NBC will premiere The New Normal, a dramedy by Ryan Murphy, the brains behind Glee. The show’s premise follows a gay couple desperate for a baby, who find their surrogate mother in Goldie, a disillusioned single mother restarting her life and career after the hubby is caught cheating. Goldie’s mom doesn’t approve, as she’s so conservative she makes Betty Crocker look like a hippie. The series is the first to address the current hot-button topic of gay marriage and equality to a mainstream audience while providing plenty of laughs and heart.
Watch the first episode of Acting Out, “The Manager”, Part 1
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Dana Smith, a Syracuse University alum, bleeds Orange. She had an unhealthy obsession with Pinterest and Pug puppies. When she’s not scheming up ways to “puppynap” one from an unknowing passerby, she likes to work out and drink coffee.