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LGBTQ+ Characters in TV History

In honor of my "5 Questions" bonus podcast up today with the wonderful Actor and Director Brian J. Smith from Sense 8 and much more, I am making todays blog a tribute to television. TV has long been a powerful medium for reflecting and shaping societal attitudes. Over the decades, the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters on TV has evolved significantly, from subtext and coded representation to explicit and celebrated diversity. This evolution mirrors the broader social progress in LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance. Let's take a chronological journey through TV history to highlight some of the most iconic LGBTQ+ characters who have changed the landscape of television.

Here is just a VERY small list of actors and roles that made some significant moments in LGBTQ television history. Who were some of your most memorable? Chris Colfer, Glee? Justin Suarez, Ugly Betty? Conrad Ricamora, How To Get Away With Murder?

1970s: Breaking Ground (as a bear of a certain age, I can go waaaay back, lol)

1. George and Gordon (Hot l Baltimore, 1975)

In 1975, ABC's short-lived series "Hot l Baltimore," created by Norman Lear, featured the first openly gay couple on American television. George and Gordon were portrayed with a refreshing normalcy, living their lives as part of a quirky ensemble cast. Though the show only lasted one season, it set a precedent for the inclusion of gay characters on mainstream television.

2. Jody Tate (Soap, 1977)

Created by Susan Harris, who was later behind The Golden Girls, it was a half-hour comedy lampooning daytime soap operas and centering on the eventful lives of two sisters, the affluent Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and working-class Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon). The show featured an early career turn for Billy Crystal as Mary’s son Jodie, who was among the first openly gay characters on primetime TV.

1980s: Slow but Steady Progress

3. Steven Carrington (Dynasty, 1981)

One of the first recurring gay characters on a prime-time soap opera, Steven Carrington (played by Al Corley and later Jack Coleman) in "Dynasty" was significant for his complex portrayal. Steven's storyline included struggles with his sexual orientation, relationships, and family acceptance, bringing LGBTQ+ issues into millions of American homes during the 1980s.

1990s: Visibility and Representation

4. Rickie Vasquez (My So-Called Life, 1994)

"My So-Called Life" featured Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), one of the first openly gay teenagers on network television. Rickie's character dealt with issues of identity, acceptance, and abuse, resonating deeply with LGBTQ+ youth. His portrayal was groundbreaking for its time, offering a rare and empathetic look at the struggles faced by LGBTQ+ teens.

5. Ellen Morgan (Ellen, 1997)

Ellen Morgan, played by Ellen DeGeneres, came out as gay in a historic episode of the sitcom "Ellen" in 1997. This moment was a landmark in television history, as it was one of the first times a lead character in a prime-time show openly declared their homosexuality. Ellen's coming out was met with both acclaim and controversy, but it undeniably paved the way for greater LGBTQ+ representation on TV.

6. Willow Rosenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997)

In "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) transitioned from a shy nerd to a powerful witch, and her relationship with Tara Maclay (Amber Benson) became one of the first long-term lesbian relationships on American TV. Their relationship was treated with respect and depth, contributing significantly to the normalization of LGBTQ+ characters in mainstream media.

7. Will and Jack (Will and Grace, 1998)

The first gay characters to really reach the mainstream zeitgeist was the groundbreaking Will and Grace that showed a successful lawyer and his straight interior designer best friend. The portrayal of Jack, Will's best friend, was originally derided for being the stereotypical gay best friend, but it soon became a beloved character. The show remained in the Top 20 of all the shows on television for over half of it's run.

2000s: Expanding the Narrative

8. Brian Kinney (Queer as Folk, 2000)

"Queer as Folk," which debuted in 2000, was the first American TV drama to focus on the lives of a group of gay men and women. Brian Kinney (Gale Harold) was one of the central characters, known for his unapologetic lifestyle and complex personality. The show broke numerous taboos and brought LGBTQ+ issues to the forefront in a way that had never been done before on American television.

9. Sophia Burset (Orange Is the New Black, 2013)

Laverne Cox's portrayal of Sophia Burset in "Orange Is the New Black" was groundbreaking for transgender representation on television. Sophia, a transgender woman of color, dealt with issues of identity, acceptance, and family relationships. Cox's Emmy nomination for this role was a historic moment, highlighting the importance of authentic transgender representation in media.

2010s: Celebrating Diversity

10. Jamal Lyon (Empire, 2015)

However problematic the actor's real life became, In "Empire," Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) is a gay black man and a talented musician, struggling for acceptance within his powerful family and the music industry. His character challenges stereotypes about masculinity and homosexuality, offering a nuanced portrayal of a gay man of color navigating his personal and professional life.

11. Blanca Evangelista (Pose, 2018)

"Pose," set in the 1980s and 1990s ballroom culture of New York City, features Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez), a trans woman who creates her own "house" to provide a supportive family environment for other marginalized LGBTQ+ individuals. The show is notable for its large cast of transgender actors and its focus on LGBTQ+ people of color, bringing visibility to an often overlooked segment of the community.

12. Eric Effiong (Sex Education, 2019)

In "Sex Education," Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) is a gay teenager navigating his identity in a predominantly white, rural British town. Eric's character is celebrated for his vibrant personality, resilience, and the positive depiction of a supportive family. His journey includes coming out, facing bullying, and ultimately embracing his identity with pride.

The Impact of LGBTQ+ Characters on Television

The inclusion and evolution of LGBTQ+ characters on television have had a profound impact on societal attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. These characters have not only provided representation but have also sparked important conversations about identity, acceptance, and equality. By showcasing diverse experiences and stories, television has played a key role in fostering understanding and empathy.

From the groundbreaking characters of the 1970s to the richly diverse portrayals of the 2010s, each of these characters has contributed to the broader narrative of LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance. As television continues to evolve, it is essential that it remains a platform for diverse voices and stories, ensuring that all members of the LGBTQ+ community see themselves represented on screen. We have a long way to go, but thanks to these actors and characters for helping pave the way.

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