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It’s been a long road to the colorful and realistic depictions of gay characters captured in popular TV shows like Modern Family and Glee today. From as far back as Richard Chamberlain’s Dr. Kildare of the 1960s and fussy Felix Unger of The Odd Couple in the '70s, all the way to True Blood, The New Normal and beyond, take a trip through the greatest gay characters ever on TV.
Richard Chamberlain was Dr. James Kildare, a young intern (and later resident) doctor who worked in a large hospital under his mentor, Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Raymond Massey). Together, the two men tackled both the physical and emotional ills of various patients. There was always something so dreamy and dashing about Chamberlain, and gay men everywhere were thrilled to have their suspicions confirmed when the Thornbirds star finally came out.
Never mind that Floyd Lawson (Howard McNear) was a hairdresser; the shy barber who spent his days grooming men even had a penchant for bow ties. He was also known to socialize with local gentlemen on the park bench in front of his store… including the somewhat flamboyant, constantly flustered and completely over-the-top Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts). Clearly Mayberry’s very own version of cruising.
The gays loved Samantha Stevens (beautiful Elizabeth Montgomery) but many felt a certain kinship to Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde). The flamboyant brother of Samantha’s mother, Endora (who many likened to a drag queen), was especially flashy even for a magic warlock. And did you ever notice he was the only relative who seemed to like dreamy Darren? Abra-cadabra-gay, for sure. Poof!
While we’d always hoped that daddy Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams) and hunky Major Don West (Mark Goddard) would get it on behind the Jupiter 2’s computer console, the only real gay action was coming from Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris). Most episodes start with Dr. Smith offering the indignant air of a drag queen, but after landing the cast in trouble he spends the remainder of the episode running around, hands flitting in the air, and squealing for help like a stereotypical nelly queen.
Felix Unger was a fussy divorced Manhattanite who cooked, cleaned and dressed to impress, a prototype for Niles and Fraiser Crane. The actor who played Unger, Tony Randall, previous job was making Rock Hudson look butch in rom-coms with Doris Day.
Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod, who later went on to captain the very gay Love Boat), was the head news writer, an unlucky balding, middle-aged man who constantly bitched to his best gal pal, Mary. Though he had a wife and kids—and what gay man didn't in those days?— that doesn’t count Murray out. Often seen in a sweater, constantly bitch-fighting with Sue Anne Nivens (Betty White), and unable to express his attraction to Ted Baxter, a few more seasons could have led to a very special coming out episode.
This groundbreaking 1972 TV movie was the first to sympathetically portray homosexuality. Hal Holbrook played a divorced father who reveals his sexual orientation to his teenage son. Martin Sheen played Halbrook’s younger lover. The tension of all involved in creating the trailblazing film is palpable while watching it even today. And Sheen and Holbrook are to be commended for proving that playing gay does not equal career suicide. Tom Hanks owes them a thank you for his Philadelphia Oscar win.
This spoof of daytime soap operas was created, written, and produced by Susan Harris (Golden Girls, Empty Nest, etc.) and featured Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal), one of the first regular LGBT characters on TV. Naturally, religious organizations disapproved, while gay rights groups worried he was too stereotypical.
Long before Glee took the title of "Gayest Show Ever," little gay and lesbian outcasts would tune in every week to hear Debbie Allen's mantra: "You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying... in sweat!" While being gay was never a major storyline even though characters like Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray) were so obviously gay we still knew they were there. We sensed it. And it was great to see these characters on equal footing with everyone else. More than that, we knew that these fellow outcasts had a shot at being huge successes, which gave us a sense of hope in our own lives.
On January 12, 1981, a few months before AIDS was given its name and a few days before Ronald Reagan took office as president, America met Dynasty’s Steven Carrington—son of disapproving patriarch Blake Carrington. Soon after his introduction as TV’s first gay main character on a prime-time drama (played by Al Corley, left), the religious right took over politics and fear of AIDS swept the nation, leading to Steven switching to women and becoming “bisexual” (and then be played by Jack Coleman, right). But all was resolved in the 1991 Dynasty miniseries The Reunion, where Blake gave his blessing to Steven (once more played by Corley) and his long-term relationship with Bart Fallmont.
In a 1989 season three episode of the babyboomer show, “Strangers,” a scene in which two gay men, Russell Weller (David Marshall Grant) and Peter Montefiore (Peter Frechette), were in bed together (for the first time on primetime TV) simply talking caused a huge fallout. Openly gay screenwriter Richard Kramer wrote the script for the show and it originally included kissing and hugging. The couple appeared to have just been intimate, but were forbidden to actually touch each other during the scene. Grant remembered of filming, “We were told that if we touched each other in any way under the covers, that it wouldn’t go on the air. Watching the scene, all I see is how completely stiff we were. We were so afraid we might actually touch.” The network lost over $1 million in advertising revenue and five of the series’ ten sponsors. Subsequently, ABC pulled the episode from rebroadcast.
In 1992, Billy Douglas The first gay high schooler on network TV debuted on the soap opera One Life to Live. Douglas—played by a teenage dream and future A-list actor Ryan Phillippe—was at the center of a controversial storyline for the daytime series. In the end, Phillippe’s character came out publicly, in a church no less; in order to dispel rumors that the town’s pastor had molested him.
Enrique `Rickie' Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) didn’t just pave the road for the gay teen characters exist on TV today; he started the LGBT teen TV freeway. As primetime’s first-ever gay teen, Rickie was the first out teen to deal with violence and homelessness, as well. In real life, Cruz was going through his own coming out process as a young man at the same time as his character.
Matt Fielding (Doug Savant) was introduced as a gay character from the first season, but the resident homo of Melrose in the 1990s is remembered way more for what he didn’t do than anything he did. Unlike his sexually promiscuous straight counterparts on the show, any sexual or romantic storylines involving Matt mostly happened off-screen. Nevertheless, the series did tackle important issues such as workplace discrimination, gay bashing, and the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy before killing the character off in 1997.
With gay men like Will Truman, Jack McFarland, (and even Karen Walker) on this series, LGBT fans were treated to a wide range of queer personalities in wacky, warm, and sometimes heart-wrenching situations for 8 seasons. The sitcom is credited with furthering the acceptance of gays and lesbians in mainstream culture and even featured an on-screen kiss between Will and Jack (the first in major network primetime TV) in season 3.
Carter Heywood (Michael Boatman) was openly gay and was portrayed as a sensitive and extremely intelligent, if slightly uptight, individual. He was the head of minority affairs in the mayor’s office and despite their differing worldviews, became best friends and roommates with the lewd, straight chief of staff, Stuart Bondek (Alan Ruck).
One of the groups in “Emerald City” included the gays, Toby Beecher (Lee Tergesen) and Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni). They’re a sexy couple, who have some sexy scenes, but they’re also so incredibly complex that they became favorite characters among many viewers. By the final season their tumultuous relationship comes to head with Keller potentially killing Beecher but tricking his accomplice instead, Beecher almost getting Keller locked up for good, one of the two almost tragically dying, and a sweet bit of revenge coming at the end. In society’s underbelly, these two gays were on equal ground with every other f-ed up inmate.
Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith), was a gay character whose experiences reflected that of series creator, Scream scribe Kevin Williamson. The reaction from conservative Christian anti-gay groups to Smith’s character coming out was surprisingly mild-- unlike the fury that erupted after Ellen DeGeneres’ came out on TV in 1997. Williamson noted at the time, "It's a very good sign and I'm thrilled about the lack of controversy...I was kind of expecting this. I was hoping, at least, that the climate was better.”
We all have friends who’ve said Sex and the City’s four female leads are just gay men played by women (particularly Samantha). But what actually made SATC important in queer TV history is that gay people were a total non-issue for Carrie and company. And both she and Charlotte had best buds that were not Chelsea gym bunnies, but regular guys looking for love in all the wrong boroughs. That is, until the two men found each other and got married on the big screen by Liza.
Doctor George Huang is a psychiatrist and FBI agent who frequently consults with the Special Victims Unit. Played by out actor B.D. Wong, the character first casually mentions his homosexuality in the 2009 episode "Hardwired" and remains a professional expert and ally to the SVU team.
Based on the UK series of the same name, Queer as Folk was the first television series to explore LGBT culture and issues in great detail. Be it partners with differing HIV status, performing in gay porn, or underage sex, no queer topic was taboo during the 5 seasons this beloved cable network series aired.
From the brilliant gay mind of Alan Ball, this creepy, life-affirming, award-winning series followed the Fisher family and their funeral home business, run by baby brother David Fisher (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall in his breakout role). After a few seasons of ups and downs in the closet, David finally finds the courage to come out as gay about his relationship with sexy cop, Keith Charles (Matthew St. Patrick). Their relationship was flawed, tender, real, and long lasting at a time when gay men were still often only caricatures on other shows.
An eclectic, diverse, and inclusive cast of real teens play the rotating students on this Canadian TV institution. Degrassi: The Next Generation has featured characters from every area of the LGBT rainbow, including FTM trangender teen Adam Torres (Jordan Todosey), lesbian Fiona Coyne (Annie Clark), out gay teen Marco Del Rossi (Adamo Ruggiero), and Paige Michalchuck’s (Lauren Collins) lesbian relationship. There’s a reason Degrassi lives on-- you won’t find equally rich LGBT storylines consistently on any other teen melodramas.
With Marc Cherry at the helm this show has always held a camptastic appeal, and gay stories were never far off. It started with Bree Van de Kamp’s (Marcia Cross) son, the accidental murderer, revealing he’s a closeted young adult. But that plot didn’t really materialize into much of anything. The real representation happened when Lee (Kevin Rahm) and Bob (Tuc Watkins), a gay couple from Chicago, move into Betty Applewhite (Alfre Woodard)’s old place.
The success of the both the UK and US versions of Queer as Folk made Noah’s Arc possible. But in addition to being the first gay series to feature all black lead characters (played by Darryl Stephens, Rodney Chester, Christian Vincent, Doug Spearman, and Jensen Atwood), Noah was the first series to fearlessly explore gay male masculinity and femininity. The results were thoughtful, enlightening and spot on.
Half a decade before True Blood morphed from queer-centric vampire drama into a supernatural smorgasbord, Dante’s Cove mixed gay men and magic with deliciously camptastic results. And the show kicked off with a gay couple (Charlie David and Gregory Michael) at the center of the show’s mystical mayhem.
Marc St. James (Michael Urie) was the openly gay and undeniably fabulous personal assistant of the fashion editor at MODE magazine. Marc always had something fresh and cutting to say, usually to the too-cute BFF receptionist Amanda (Becki Newton). Justin Suarez (Mark Indelicato), Betty (America Ferrera)’s fashion forward, performing arts-loving nephew never hid his sass. Gays the world over shed a sweet tear when the youngin’ came out in the second-to-last episode.
Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys) and Scotty Wandell (Luke Macfarlane) had a rocky but ultimately beautifully redeeming love story on Brothers & Sisters. Kevin is a gay attorney trying to “pass,” when he meets flamboyant Scotty and falls in love. The two lose their way, but after seeing how lonely his still-closeted elder Uncle Saul (Ron Rifkin) ended up, Kevin mans up and proposes to Scotty, giving us one of TV’s rare happy gay weddings.
Captain Jack Harkness, played by real life out dreamboat John Barrowman, was previously established on Doctor Who as bisexual or pansexual. A Torchwood team member notes in an early episode, Harkness will ‘sleep with anything, if it’s gorgeous enough.’ Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), the team assistant, begins the series in a secretive heterosexual relationship, but eventually enters a long romantic relationship with Jack. Jack's ex partner, Captain John Hart (Buffy’s James Marsters) appears in the second series premiere and the second series finale as a foe still desperately in love with Captain Jack.
Calvin Owens (Paul James), is a young man who joins a frat his freshmen year at college only to be inadvertently outed in the first season finale. Not only does Owens represent a positive portrayal of a young gay black man, but it’s a relief from many stereotypes to see a masculine gay man living in a fraternity house on TV. He had a romantic but rocky relationship with a closeted fraternity brother, Grant (Gregory Michael).
Bryan Batt’s portrayal of Salvatore Romano, a closeted gay man struggling to deal with his sexuality in the early 1960s, was one of the reasons LGBT viewers kept coming back for new episodes of Mad Men. The charming art director had a female wife beard and a fiery hook up with a hotel bellboy during his time at Sterling Cooper, but ultimately, his sexuality cost him his job.
A talented cast of young actors and the frankest depiction of teen sex and drug use on television yet launched the award-winning college drama to major popularity in the UK. Created by a father and son writing team, past stars Nicholas Hoult and Dev Patel indulged in graphic storylines covering religion, homosexuality, dysfunctional families, mental illness, eating disorders, adolescent sexuality, substance abuse, and death. The 2011 MTV American version of the series only lasted 10 episodes, catching controversy at every turn.
The original 1990s series stayed away from gay plotlines (they left that for their older cousins on Melrose Place), but the new series has tackled it on more than one occasion. School jock Teddy Montgomery (Trevor Donovan) has struggled with coming out and had plenty of flings with various guys along the way before saying he was gay and finding his first love. Unlike some softer versions of gay teens on popular shows, Teddy gets some on the regular! And why wouldn’t he? He’s gorgeous!
Lafayette Reynolds, the sassy short-order cook at Merlotte's restaurant, has dabbled in everything from running a gay porn website, dealing vampire blood ("V"), dating a santeria brujo and channeling the spirits of dead people in the town of Bon Temps. But his adventurousness has gotten him into trouble: once he rotted as a prisoner in the dungeon of the vampire nightclub Fangtasia and another time he was made to kill his aformentioned boyfriend by a power-hungry witch.
You can mark the progress of gay youth in America by drawing a straight line from My So-Called Life’s Rickie Vasquez to Glee’s Kurt Hummel (out in real life Chris Colfer). Whereas Rickie came from a broken home and ended up on living on the street, Kurt is eagerly embraced by his father and has lots of supportive peers. And though anti-gay bullying from the closeted Karofsky (Max Adler) resulted in him briefly changing schools, the move allowed Kurt to meet boyfriend Blaine (Darren Criss), proving gay teenage dreams can come true today.
The third season of Glee saw the addition of gay villain Sebastian, a ruthless member of the Dalton Academy Warblers who tries to flirt a wedge between Kurt and Blaine. A runner-up on Oxygen's The Glee Project, Alex Newell also joined the cast as sassy glee club rival Wade Adams, the show's first trans character, who prefers to perform as Unique. Unique joined New Directions in the season 4 premiere.
Another first for a television sitcom occurred when the family of Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), Mitchell (out actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and baby Lily appeared in primetime. Rather than introduce gay parents in a special episode or as supporting characters, these loving, committed co-parents have been allowed to flourish as a part of the main cast focus and showcase the normalcy of gay families.
Danny (Keahu Kahuanui) on MTV’s Teen Wolf is about as far from a gay stereotype as a character can get. He’s not only a confident student among his peers, he’s also a star lacrosse player and the best friend of the team Captain. It is interesting to note that his sexuality is also never an issue with any other character on the show, making Danny an excellent benchmark for the progress of gay characters on television.
Spencer Reed (Ethan Embry, who also played gay in the Reese Witherspoon movie Sweet Home Alabama) is the brother of lead character Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi, of The L Word fame). Formerly a working lawyer in the family law firm, the smarty is now a happily married stay at home dad. His husband's name is Terry. Talk about a family friendly gay character!
In the American series based on the UK original, Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monoghan) is a gay teenager involved in a sexual relationship with Kash, his boss, who is married and a father. Ian is known as the “anti-Kurt Hummel” for his scandalous, conniving, and frisky behavior. Sounds like some gay men we knew in our formative years.
Marijuana queenpin Nancy Botwin first hired Sanjay Patel to tutor her teenage son Silas. But she soon realized that his need for college tuition and access to fellow drug-users at Valley State College made him a perfect pick for her first dealer. In a tragicomic turn of events, a drug dealer U-Turn made his cousin Clinique rape Sanjay in an attempt to turn him straight. But when clinique got pregnant, Sanjay decided to marry her and help raise the child as his own.
Stan's married neighbors Greg Corbin and Terry Bates serve as co-anchors on the W-ANG-TV news show. Greg is a Log Cabin Republican, Terry is closeted and together they own a French Bulldog named Heath Ledger. But when Stan's wife served as a surrogate for the mens' newborn daughter, Stan freaked out at the thought of gay parents, took the baby to Nebraska and named her "Liberty-Belle." He eventually returned the child and apologized, but Greg and Terry still have a restraining order against him.
Michael Urie, best known for playing the scheming creative editor in Ugly Betty, plays the dramatic, comic relief opposite his straight lifelong pal and architectural business partner Joe. Louis dates a nurse named Wyatt--a hunky, loving nurse who Louis wishes was a doctor--regularly does yoga with Joe's girlfriend and has a tattoo of Clay Aiken on his butt (proof that he always "goes with his gut," the poor thing).
Following the success of Glee and American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy has teamed up with lesbian writer Ali Adler to create a new sitcom focusing on the relationship between a successful L.A. gay couple — The Book of Mormon's Andrew Rannells as superficial TV producer Bryan and The Hangover's Justin Bartha as geeky gynecologist David — and the surrogate mother of their unborn child.