In American television today, shows like Marvel’s Runaways, Orange is the New Black, Modern Family and One Day at a Time are simply considered good TV. They’re full of complex characters with dynamic, well-developed storylines that are frequently shown to be the moral backbone of their show.
However, The Broadcast Standards and Practices Board would have once considered these shows highly indecent for the presence of openly gay characters. In fact, in 1997 Ellen DeGeneres threatened to quit the sitcom “Ellen” after ABC issued a parental advisory before airing an episode simply because DeGeneres’ character jokingly kissed her best female friend. The producers at ABC defended their position claiming, “the promise we have made to our audience is to provide them with as much information as possible so they can decide what is appropriate for their children to watch.”
This aversion to homosexuality and homosexual conduct has been ingrained in the media since its conception. Time Magazine expressed disdain for homosexuality in 1966 when it published an essay titled “The Homosexual in America” claiming homosexuality “deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as a minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste-and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.” Even the American Psychology Association included homosexuality in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1973.
Naturally, during this time the percentage of gay, lesbian and bisexual people seen on television was practically nonexistent, forcing heartthrobs like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter to conceal their sexual orientation to ensure the success of their careers.
However, today DeGeneres, Samira Wiley, Neil Patrick Harris and Keiynan Lonsdale are all successful, highly popular television figures who make no attempt to hide their sexual orientation. This shift toward acceptance of homosexuality is reflected in a recent Pew Research Center poll that showed 62% of Americans support same sex marriage as opposed to the 27% who supported it in 1996. Since then, same-sex marriage has become legal in all 50 states.
So, what is causing this dramatic shift in opinions, visibility and acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual people? One answer is the prevalence of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the media.
According to a recent study of college students, an increase in exposure to gay, lesbian and bisexual people in media enables groups with opposing positions to form a more positive view on homosexuality. The reasoning is that media portrayals of gay, lesbian and bisexual people may be the only source of exposure to homosexuality for American’s who do not know a gay person personally. This exposure, as a 2007 Pew study determined, illustrates that “familiarity is closely linked to tolerance.” Simply put: it is more difficult to hate someone you are exposed to than it is to hate a stranger.
That is why characters like L.A. Law’s CJ Lamb (Amanda Donhoe), who had the first lesbian kiss on television in 1991, and “One Life to Lives’” Billy Douglas (Ryan Phillippe), who was the first openly gay teenager on daytime television in 1992, were so important. These characters were able to expose viewers to the struggles of homosexuals in America. Phillippe recalls reading about the impact his character had on a homophobic mechanic who had not spoken to his gay son in years, but “when our show came on in his shop, it gave him some insight and understanding as to who his son was, so it opened up communication between them. As much as you can write off how silly the entertainment industry can be, it can affect change and make people see things differently.”
These two shows also marked the beginning of destigmatizing homosexual people in the media. Most early portrayals of homosexuality on television featured gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were riddled with AIDS, addicted to promiscuity and left with unsatisfying sexual relationships.
If the gay characters were not portrayed negatively then they were frequently used for the sole purpose of comedic effect. In 1991, the popular NBC sitcom “Cheers” depicted a scene where the male bartender, Sam Malone, kisses another man to prove a point and immediately gets punched for his mistake, inciting roars of laughter from the crowd. The danger in perpetuating this violence, disgust or distain toward gay people in the media “could make people less accepting, leading them to accept those unfavorable portrayals” according to a study published in the “Journal of Homosexuality” in 1991. For every Billy Douglas and CJ Lamb there were dozens of Sam Malone’s in the early 1990’s.
It wasn’t until April of 1997 when DeGeneres’ character Ellen Morgan announced, “I’m gay!” to an entire airport terminal that the perception of homosexual people in the media really began to change. Now, DeGeneres is praised for her bravery and pioneering efforts to normalize homosexuality but twenty one years ago DeGeneres received death threats for the plot of her coming out episode. She was ridiculed in the media and even given the derogatory nickname “Ellen Degenerate” by Televangelist Jerry Falwell. The show only survived one more season before being cancelled in 1998 which effectively paused DeGeneres’s career in the media until 2001.
Despite the heavy publicized backlash “Ellen” received, a new sitcom starring an openly gay man and his best female friend came to NBC in 1998. “Will & Grace” quickly became the most successful and impactful gay sitcom on network television. Main characters Will Truman and Jack McFarland were able to show America that gay people are more than their sexuality by making it a secondary factor to their personality. According to a recent study of college students, viewing this show regularly resulted in lower levels of prejudice towards gay men. Vice President Joe Biden even spoke of the impact of this show stating, “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”
The 22nd annual GLAAD report “Where We Are on TV” states 6.4% of the 901 characters on primetime television are members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Having 58 queer characters on television was unheard of back when Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay first dusted off their spells books and experimented with “Wiccanism”, an overt metaphor for lesbianism, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1999. “Just in the last 10 years, there has been such a leap forward. And I feel like we were helpful. We weren’t making television—we were doing social commentary”, says Amber Benson whose character Tara Maclay and girlfriend Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) are credited with the first longest running lesbian relationship on Television.
Wilson Cruz, spokesperson for GLAAD echoes Benson’s words by claiming television or film is “a real opportunity for people to meet LGBT people in the comfort of their homes or the darkness of a theater to have an emotional experience and really understand the lives of LGBT people.”
This exposure to normal and stable gay, lesbian and bisexual people is vital to the improved opinion of homosexuality and homosexuals in general. Countless studies have proven the direct effect of exposure and socialization on improved sympathy toward homosexual people. In 1992, a study published in the “Journal of Homosexuality” found that immediately after viewing a documentary about the murder of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, people were less likely to hold prejudicial views. In 2002, a similar study conducted at the University of Oklahoma discovered greater reports of acceptance after his test subjects were shown a video about a “non-traditional family.”
There is no denying that the media has softened people’s attitudes about gay, lesbian and bisexual people. These early shows paved the way for the Mitch and Cam’s and the Nico and Karolina’s of modern television. They were instrumental in normalizing homosexuality and easing the process of “coming out.” A recent Time Magazine article “How Gay Marriage Won” says it best, “gay men and lesbians were not aliens from society, somehow set apart.” It has been a long and complicated fifty-two-year journey from a “pernicious sickness.”