LGBT+ life in the contemporary day is rich and varied, with same-sex couples included in shows on networks as conservative and cautious as Disney. However, queer folks were not always so accepted, and certainly not as visible in the media.
In the post-World War II era, gays and lesbians began to form what was called the homophile movement, made up of various social, political, and cultural clubs centering on gay life. This emerging gay visibility, coupled with the fear of Communism and a consequent breakdown of American values and family, led to the Lavender Scare, a widespread panic over the existence of gay folks. The watershed moment in American gay history occurred in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, when the police conducted a raid and violence occurred in response. The Stonewall Riot was a modern-day shot heard round the world, serving as the starting point for the gay rights movement.
Consequently, throughout the 1970s, the LGBT+ community began to fight for inclusion in American politics and society. Their slow progress was sharply cut in the early 1980s, when gay men began rapidly contracting and dying of what is now known as HIV/AIDS, but was then a mysterious killer with little to no treatment available. Homosexuality, which came to be equated with illness and fatality, became taboo and stigmatized. Coverage of the AIDS crisis by the media placed the gay community in a negative light, creating a renewed fear of homosexuals. However, the gay community did not stand idly by, but began to organize against homophobia and for a cure to AIDS.
Thus, the 1990s became better for queer inclusivity; Americans began to get used to the fact that gays and lesbians existed within their midst. Queer folks started to come out of the closet en masse and demand the same rights accorded to their straight counterparts. Discussions about same-sex marriage, the status of gays in the military, and job discrimination based on sexual orientation began to be had. The gay rights movement has only gained momentum as the years have gone on. Currently, seventeen states and the federal government recognize same-sex marriage, and barriers in other states and for other rights are being broken every day.
Unsurprisingly, gay representation in television has largely been influenced by public opinion towards the gay and lesbian community. (Usually, this is to the exclusion of queer folks – particularly youth, people of color, and trans*people – who fall outside of the mainstream, affluent, and predominantly white gay and lesbian community.) Consequently, gay characters and plotlines were largely absent from television from the 1950s through 1980s. During the height of the AIDS crisis, advertisers’ hesitance to link themselves with gay material led networks to avoid touching on queer issues. Throughout this period, activists worked tirelessly to change the status quo in queer media representation. Beginning in 1992, the situation changed rapidly; several television shows began to feature openly queer characters and gay plotlines, which turned into a strong trend.
As a result, the 1990s heralded the beginning of an era when the LGBT+ community became more represented in American media. A “gay and lesbian chic” began to appear in the 1990s, with everyone from advertisers to politicians beginning to actively reach out to the gay population. However, it is no coincidence that queerness began to appear on television at the same time as gays began to become part of mainstream American society and public discourse.
Gay themes became apparent in the movies, with films like The Crying Game (1992) and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) becoming enormously successful. It didn’t take long to bring queer characters onto the small screen. Although shows at the beginning of the decade kept gay characters ancillary and watered down or entirely censored explicitly gay plotlines, shows like Roseanne (1988-1997), Melrose Place (1992-1999), and NYPD Blue (1993-2005) began to push the envelope as the decade wore on. Gay-themed plots began to diversify as well, including a variety of storylines rather than solely focusing on tropes like the AIDS crisis and coming out.
By the mid-1990s, queer characters and plotlines were considered mainstream. In 1997, when the main character of Ellen (1994-1998) came out of the closet, she was the first gay protagonist of a television show. After Ellen, networks rarely hesitated to include queer themes in their shows. In 1998, Will and Grace debuted, featuring an openly gay male lead and several other queer characters. It aired for eight seasons, consistently ranked in the top ten most popular shows, and was nominated for 83 Emmys. Although Will and Grace was unusually successful, several other shows integrated or focused on gay characters and plotlines throughout the remainder of the 2000s and 2010s, from Normal, Ohio (2001-2002) to the presently-airing Modern Family.
Considering the rapid progress that the queer rights movement has made within only a few decades, there is no doubt that equality, or at least something close to it, will soon be attained. Legal barriers are being torn down every day, and social and cultural taboos and fears against LGBT+ folks are being carefully dismantled. There is no better place to observe this phenomenon than in queer representation in television, which has boomed in a short period of time. No, it’s not perfect, but we’re definitely getting there.