A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 9/26/13

You would never guess when tuning in to Glee or Modern Family that not long ago TV was a straights-only club. That started to change in 1993 when gay characters burst onto the screen with a bang (well, a kiss) in Tales of the City. Since then we’ve followed gay characters, trusted the reporting of gay newscasters and enjoyed the banter of gay talk-show hosts.

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Ellen DeGeneres  (b. 1958 | American actor, comedian and TV host)
to  Queer as Folk  (TV show | 2000–2005)

The sitcom Ellen (1994–1998) was the first network television show to feature a gay lead character. Even so, star Ellen DeGeneres, who played bookstore owner Ellen Morgan, kept her audience waiting for the big coming out: It wasn’t until the last episode of season four that Morgan proclaimed her sexual preference, shortly after DeGeneres announced publicly that she was gay. By season five, Morgan was comfortably dating women and tossing off gay-themed punch lines. ABC TV, however, criticized by conservative groups for taking an open approach to sexual preference, soon canceled the show.

Nonetheless, DeGeneres had opened the TV closet doors, and the Queer as Folk cast jumped out screaming. This series about a group of gay friends in Pittsburgh appeared on Showtime, a premium cable station free from network constraints. The men in Queer as Folk have sex in back rooms, overwork the F word and proudly flaunt their affinity for Maria Callas, Internet porn and girly cocktails. They fulfill every cliché, and the series milks every possible gay storyline. Even so, Ellen and these queer folk broke new ground, paving the way for Queer as Folk's lesbian counterpart, The L Word (2004–2009), also on Showtime.

Ellen DeGeneres  (b. 1958 | American actor, comedian and TV host)
to  Will & Grace  (TV show | 1998–2006)

When Ellen Morgan comes out on Ellen, she does so accompanied by a laugh track. In a setup that can happen only on a sitcom, she tells a love interest she’s gay while standing near a live microphone that broadcasts the information throughout an airport. An estimated 42 million viewers tuned in to watch the scene, proving that gay plus funny can be a winning combination. That formula worked again a couple of years later in the sitcom Will & Grace, in which a handsome gay lawyer and an attractive straight woman share a Manhattan apartment.

Gay sex doesn’t play much of a part in Will & Grace. Grace’s romantic partners come and go, but Will is unattached for most of the series, doomed to celibacy by network cautiousness. Perhaps the cancellation of Ellen after a conservative protest campaign induced NBC to bide its time with Will and ease viewers into gay life. When at the close of the series Will finally settled down with a man, viewers were ready. Vice President Joe Biden, discussing marriage equality, mused, “I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done.”

Ellen DeGeneres  (b. 1958 | American actor, comedian and TV host)
to  Anderson Cooper  (b. 1967 | American journalist)

Comedian Ellen DeGeneres has enjoyed greater longevity as a talk-show host than as a sitcom star. The Ellen DeGeneres Show has been a daytime TV mainstay since 2003. DeGeneres’s popularity helped her land a spot as host of the Academy Awards, in 2006. The first openly gay or lesbian person to do the honors, she paid tribute to diversity in the entertainment industry: “If there weren’t blacks, Jews and gays, there would be no Oscars, or anyone named Oscar, when you think about that.” The wedding of DeGeneres and actor Portia de Rossi in 2008 was the first gay union to receive widespread mainstream media coverage.

Along with DeGeneres’s success, gays have made inroads into newscasting. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC was the first openly gay anchor of a prime-time news show. CNN superstar journalist Anderson Cooper publicly acknowledged being gay in July 2012, saying: “While as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible…I do think there is value in standing up and being counted.” A former colleague perhaps best voiced the public reaction: “It just isn’t a big deal anymore.”

Will & Grace  (TV show | 1998–2006)
to  Modern Family  (TV show | premiered 2009)

Will Truman and Grace Adler are, in many senses, a couple—sharing an apartment, friends and confidences, able to rely on each other in spite, or because, of their seemingly incompatible personalities. In Modern Family, a sitcom that follows the experiences of three related households, we meet Will and Grace’s doppelgangers: Cam and Mitchell, a gay couple with an adopted daughter. Mitchell, like Will, is an uptight lawyer; Cam, like Grace, is emotional and unreserved.

In both shows, being gay can seem a bit of a lark, a source of endless jokes. Cam’s theatrical antics often get the laughs in Modern Family: When a bouquet he is holding bursts into flames and he screams and rushes off to the kitchen sink, Mitchell quips, “Look at that. Two things flaming at once.” The characters might play off stereotypes, but their wisecracks have helped usher gays into the mainstream. It’s a sign of our times that while Will and his sidekick, Jack, stood out as homosexual men on 1990s television, Cam and Mitchell blend right in with the Modern Family ensemble, and their show is one among many prime-time sitcoms—Whitney, Happily Divorced, Happy Endings, The New Normal—spotlighting gay characters.

Tales of the City  (TV miniseries | 1993)
to  Modern Family  (TV show | premiered 2009)

Gay television characters were untouchables when PBS aired Tales of the City in 1993. A 1989 thirtysomething episode with a scene of two men in bed together was pulled from the rebroadcast rotation; in 1991 an L.A. Law story line beginning with a lesbian kiss was dropped. In Tales of the City, based on Armistead Maupin’s chronicles of freewheeling 1970s San Francisco, men kiss passionately, wake up in bed together, dance in their tighty-whities and stalk one another through bathhouses. Conservative groups labeled the show “gay propaganda,” declaring it “anti-family” and “anti-religious,” and PBS declined to fund the sequel. Many viewers, though, were enchanted with the straight and gay characters who drifted in and out of Anna Madrigal’s boardinghouse at 28 Barbary Lane.

Two decades after the controversial run of Tales, television audiences met a new, richly diverse ensemble with intertwined lives, the Pritchett-Dunphy clan on the popular and critically lauded Modern Family. No one seems to blink at the fact that one of the show’s three married couples with children, Cameron and Mitchell, is gay. In fact, most of the criticism of the pair has been complaints that the two men don’t show enough affection for one another.

Tales of the City  (TV miniseries | 1993)
to  Glee  (TV show | premiered 2009)

A kiss is just a kiss, so it’s said, but when two men warmly locked lips in Tales of the City, the gesture meant a whole lot more. The televised display of homosexual affection, a novelty on the airwaves in 1993, suggested that viewers were ready to accept everyone. As bohemian landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) says when asked if she objects to pets, “My dear, I don’t object to anything.”

Diversity and acceptance come to the fore again in Glee, a musical-comedy/high-school drama that centers on a group of teens who belong to a glee club at William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio. The ensemble—gay, straight and multiracial—is entwined in a dizzying array of story lines, including one about a long-awaited first kiss between two gay teens, Kurt and Blaine, and another about a lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality. For the most part, though, gay kids don’t stand out at McKinley; all the teens in the mix have their ups and downs. Despite the usual public outcry in conservative circles—Glee is “gay propaganda,” “glorifies immorality” and “serves up Bible mockery”—viewers love the characters, and the show is a prime-time smash.

Queer as Folk  (TV show | 2000–2005)
to  Glee  (TV show | premiered 2009)

Like Glee, Queer as Folk follows an ensemble of outsiders—in this case, a group of gay friends in Pittsburgh. White and middle class, they’re not nearly as diverse as the kids on Glee, but like many of those teens, they swim against the mainstream as they grapple with HIV, crystal meth, unrequited love, queer bashing, infidelity, parental acceptance and other booby traps of gay life.

Glee is at its best and freshest when it shows kids coming into their own, warding off bullies, prejudice and, perhaps the greatest hurdle for any teenager, unpopularity. The ability to belt out a tune is a great equalizer at McKinley High, bringing together gays, lesbians, blacks, Asians, paraplegics, even football players and cheerleaders. More important, singing allows these kids to express themselves.

Queer as Folk also gave voice to an up-to-then largely neglected group on TV. It’s refreshing to hear a coterie of gay men speaking their minds on everything from Madonna and T-shirt fashions to gay marriage, parenthood and political representation. Although it often resorted to clichés, the series helped bring gay life into fuller view.

Anderson Cooper  (b. 1967 | American journalist)
to  Glee  (TV show | premiered 2009)

Anderson Cooper is best known for his news program Anderson Cooper 360˚ and his on-the-scenes reporting on Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the earthquake in Haiti and other major events. While Cooper has said he doesn’t want to be pegged as “the gay anchor” and like most journalists keeps his private life off the air, he does not shy away from gay-oriented news topics. On AC360˚ he has covered the bullying of gay teens and relentlessly confronted and challenged those engaged in antigay bigotry.

In the 2012 Glee episode “Saturday Night Glee-ver,” Wade Adams (Alex Newell), a cross-dressing teen with a diva-ish alter-ego named Unique, goes onstage in high heels and does a spirited rendition of “Boogie Shoes.” Afterward, Wade says he’s become an icon for every kid who’s different and seems not entirely comfortable with that; in real life, Newell, who is gay, reports he has been the target of less bullying since his turn in the spotlight. Glee consistently emphasizes the damage wrought by homophobic bullying and the rewards of acceptance in its dramatic story lines, while Cooper, DeGeneres and other media spokespeople, gay and straight, support and carry that message in their programs as well.