What were some milestones for queers on television? (Part 2)

Liz Highleyman | July 23, 2007

Al Corley as Steven Carrington in Dynasty
Despite growing pressure from conservatives following the proliferation of LGBT characters in the mid-1970s, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed no shortage of queer television milestones.

In 1981, ABC's popular Dynasty introduced Steven Carrington, the first openly bisexual regular character in a dramatic series. The network's daytime soap opera All My Children featured its first gay storyline in 1983, when erstwhile heterosexual Devon McFadden declared her love for her lesbian psychiatrist. Five years later, ABC presented the first recurring out lesbian character in prime time – nurse Marilyn McGrath on the short-lived medical drama Heartbeat.

During these decades, television increasingly addressed issues of concern to the LGBT community. The 1985 made-for-TV movie An Early Frost offered one of the first portrayals of people with AIDS. MTV's The Real World also dealt with AIDS, featuring HIV-positive Pedro Zamora during its 1994 season. NBC's TV movie Serving in Silence (1995) related the story of Lt. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who was ousted from the military after acknowledging that she was a lesbian. But not until 2006 did The L Word introduce Moira/Max, the first female-to-male character to transition on the small screen, followed later that year by Zarf/Zoe's male-to-female transition on All My Children.

Over the years, expressions of same-sex affection between women were more accepted than those between men. In February 1991, C.J. Lamb and Abby Perkins, two attorneys on NBC's L.A. Law, shared the first lesbian kiss on network TV. A January 1997 episode of Relativity showed a passionate, close-up lesbian lip-lock, and two years later, TV lawyer Ally McBeal shared a prolonged smooch with a female office rival. By contrast, the sitcom thirtysomething lost more than $1 million in ad revenue in November 1989 when it showed two men in bed together, and the male same-sex kissing barrier was not broken until 2000, by Jack and Ethan on WB Network's Dawson's Creek.

The late 1990s saw the first shows with prominent LGBT lead characters. On April 30, 1997 – after months of innuendo – Ellen DeGeneres had the most famous small-screen coming-out, in a star-studded episode of her ABC sitcom Ellen. NBC's Will and Grace also broke new ground, though some viewers were disappointed that the gay male lead never had an ongoing romantic relationship. The turn of the century witnessed the most visible queer personality on reality TV since Lance Loud, when self-proclaimed "fat naked fag" Richard Hatch won the first season of Survivor in 2000.

Cable television offered the most daring series featuring primarily queer casts, including Showtime's Queer as Folk in 2000, Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2003, and The L Word in 2004. In 1991, Canada's PrideVision (later renamed OutTV) became the world's first channel offering full-time programming for a queer audience; the U.S. cable channels Here! TV, Q Television Network, and MTV/Viacom's Logo followed suit, producing original programs such as Noah's Arc and the supernatural gay drama Dante's Cove.

The increased presence of LGBT people on TV reflects the growing influence of both out queers in the entertainment industry and straight producers who grew up in an era of greater acceptance of sexual diversity. Nonetheless, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that during the 2006-2007 broadcast network television season, only 1.3 percent of regular characters on scripted, prime-time programs were gay or lesbian, and none were bisexual or transgender.

For further information:

  • Alwood, Edward. 1996. Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media (Columbia University Press).
  • Eisenbach, David. 2006. Gay Power: An American Revolution (Carroll & Graf).
  • Raymond, Susan, and Alan Raymond. 2002. Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family (PBS documentary).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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