Gay Characters on US Television: From ‘Soap’ To ‘Will & Grace’

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By Rob Jackson; Pride Entertainment Online.

 This article is the first in a series of articles exploring the portrayal of GLTB characters within filmed media. This article is dedicated to those actors who, oftentimes at great risk to their career, have courageously played gay and lesbian characters, to those audiences that have inspired them, and to the viewers that have embraced them.

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 Although the incidences of gay and lesbian characters on TV have been many in recent years, the actual accurate representations of gays and lesbians as main characters have been fewer and farther between. Historically the discomforts that viewers and television networks experience with the subject of homosexuality create a double standard, becoming inherently hypocritical since television shows portray heterosexual sexual situations more readily, more frequently, and in greater detail.  In many of the shows that have introduced Gay and lesbian characters, the gay character would frequently end up in a straight relationship or be killed off. Soap and Dynasty were two prime examples of this happening.

 The show Soap would, in 1977 introduce Jodie (played by Billy Crystal) as a gay character. In an effort to placate conservative viewers, Jody would eventually sleep with a woman. While on Dynasty, Steven Carrington (played at times by Al Corley and at others by Jack Coleman) shocked viewers on several occasions by coming out of the closet, then going back in. He would later be written off the show, though he would return in the 1991 reunion movie as gay as before.

 In the early 80’s NBC aired the television movie Sidney Shore: A Girls Best Friend which many in our community hoped would buck the trend. In this TV movie Tony Randall played the gay character Sidney Shorr who befriended a mother and her daughter. When the network picked up and developed the film into the sitcom Love Sidney, the show was lambasted by many organizations because it portrayed a gay character compassionately. However, many critics in our community (specifically the magazine ‘The Gay Advocate’) were upset that the series would make little to no mention of the character’s homosexuality and would only hint at it during a scene where he glances lovingly at a framed photo of his late lover, Martin.

But it would be Cable television notably Showtime and HBO that would take the lead in main character portrayals of gays in the mid 80’s, with the 1984 premiere of the now classic, Brothers, which notably had not one, but two, gay characters.

Brothers 01 [Cast ]

 Brothers related the adventures of the three Waters brothers (played by Brandon Maggert, Robert Walden, and Paul Regina). One of the brothers (portrayed by Paul Regina) is gay and freshly out of the closet; His best friend Donald is a flamboyant no apologies gay man (played by Phillip Charles MacKenzie). On several occasions the show would discuss controversial issues such as coming out, AIDS and gay dating.

Showtime would continue to support and portray gay and lesbian viewers with many shows during the next couple decades. Rude Awakening, the ubiquitous Queer As Folk and The L-Word would continue to give a much needed visibility to gay issues with their frank discussion of them.

However it wasn’t until the late 90’s that network television would once again attempt to address homosexuality by regularly including us as characters (either as main, or as supporting or recurring) in their programming.

 Both ABC and NBC would take on the responsibility – of accurately (for the most part) portraying gay and lesbian main characters – with their shows Spin City and Will and Grace.

Spin City 01Spin City was the brainchild of Gary David Goldberg, the creator of the long running hit Family Ties. Spin City would reunite Goldberg and Family Ties star Michael J Fox in a series whose primary theme was the behind the scene workings of New York’s City Hall. Producers and writers took their gay character seriously, not choosing to show him as a stereotype, but as a well rounded masculine man.

One member of the supporting cast was Michael Boatman. Michael Boatman portrayed Carter Heywood, the shows gay character, who was also the shows link to the African American community. His character allowed the show to also focus on several important gay themes: among them outing and coming out, AIDS, and (an issue that is still the subject of great debate today) … gay marriage. Maybe as an indicator of the changing times, Boatman’s character would remain on the show through its entire run … remaining gay the entire time.

 Several seasons of the show would gather the attention of GLAAD receiving nominations for Outstanding TV Comedy Series in 1997, 1998, and 1999. Spin City would win this award in 1997.

will&grace01 Created by Dan Kohan and openly gay writer Max Mutchnick, Will and Grace starred Eric McCormick, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, and Megan Mullaly, and would at times both embrace gay stereotype and repudiate them. The show would frequently cast openly gay actors such as Leslie Jordan, Lilly Tomlin, Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres; gay icons and favorites such as Debbie Reynolds, Cher, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez in guest or recurring roles.   

As mainstream viewers get used to the gay & lesbian people in their real lives, we will undoubtedly continue to be more visible as characters on television.  

Watch for these future articles in this series:

  •  Our Gay TV: The Big Switch … How Television Portrays Transgender and Bisexual People
  • Our Gay TV: Recurring Characters Lead the Way
  • Our Gay TV: TV Movies Take Us On
  • Our Gay TV: The Soaps Come Out
  • Our Gay TV: GLTB Portrayals in Other Nations

5 thoughts on “Gay Characters on US Television: From ‘Soap’ To ‘Will & Grace’”

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