Pride on TV: Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, RuPaul’s Drag Race, DC Comics’ Supergirl, Ellen Degeneres’ 90s coming out and 16 more small screen wins for LGBT representation
Less than 25 years ago in the US, the very idea of a TV star and her sitcom character identifying as lesbian was earth-shaking, as Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out announcement became a major national story.
“The Puppy” episode of ABC’s Ellen, which aired in April 1997, was one of the biggest milestones in the recognition of LGBTQ+ actors, characters and storylines on television in the US.
In the years before and since, American TV has had a mixed record in portraying (and including) LGBTQ+ characters and actors.
Pride Month provides an important opportunity to focus on TV portrayals that helped viewers gain greater understanding of, or reflected the evolving attitudes of, the public.
TV’s increasing inclusivity is evidenced by series such as Fox’s 9-1-1: Lone Star, Hulu’s Love, Victor and Showtime’s Billions, and reflects the growing influence of prolific producers including Greg Berlanti, Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes. Let’s have a look at the major milestones ...
All in the Family (1971-79)
Living up to its trailblazing reputation, Norman Lear’s legendary comedy became the first sitcom with a storyline featuring a gay character in 1971, as bigoted Archie has trouble believing an old buddy is gay. While many showrunners remained hesitant at the time, Lear introduced LGBTQ+ characters in his other shows too, including a gay couple on Hot L Baltimore (1975); a trans woman on The Jeffersons (1977); and a trans main character on the short-lived All That Glitters (1977).
That Certain Summer (1972)
Three years after the Stonewall Uprising in New York marked a turning point in the battle for LGBTQ+ rights, this ABC movie of the week offered what many consider the first compassionate portrayal of a same-sex couple (played by Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen).
An American Family (1973)
This landmark documentary following the Loud family is primarily known as the precursor of reality TV – with the cachet of PBS – but it also stood out because one of the family’s sons, Lance, was openly gay at a time when society was less hospitable.
Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal) was network TV’s first memorable gay series regular. In ABC’s over-the-top parody of daytime soap operas, Dallas goes from dating a soccer player to fathering a daughter with a woman who seduces him. (That also made him the first openly gay father in prime time.)
St. Elsewhere (1982-88)
NBC’s acclaimed medical drama was the first prime time drama to document Aids with the story of a closeted politician.
In 1985, NBC also aired An Early Frost, the first TV movie dealing with Aids, which followed a young gay man (Aidan Quinn) dealing with HIV and coming out to his parents.
One Life to Live (1968-2013)
As an openly gay teen, Billy Douglas (Ryan Phillippe) was a groundbreaking character on daytime television when he was introduced in 1992. The ABC soap featured other LGBTQ+ storylines during its five-decade run, receiving multiple media awards from LGBTQ+ media monitoring organisation GLAAD.
In 2009, All My Children, which featured daytime’s first lesbian character in 1983, presented another genre first: the same-sex wedding of Reese Williams and Bianca Montgomery.
My So-Called Life (1994-95)
The Real World: San Francisco (1994)
Pedro Zamora, a young gay man who was HIV-positive, offered an empathetic human face to challenge hostile caricatures in the third season of the iconic MTV reality soap. He died of Aids-related complications just hours after the season finale aired, but the attention he drew to Aids and LGBTQ+ issues remains a lasting memorial that earned him praise from then-president Bill Clinton.
Neither DeGeneres nor her sitcom character, Ellen Morgan, identified publicly as lesbian until 1997, late in the ABC comedy’s fourth season. After months of speculation, and at a time when such revelations could severely damage careers, both the star and her character revealed their true identities, Morgan in a funny airport scene and DeGeneres via Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and Time magazine.
Will & Grace (1998-2006; 2017-20)
Queer as Folk (2000-05)
In 2000, Showtime’s drama featuring an ensemble of gay men living in Pittsburgh was a sign of premium cable’s ability to focus on niche audiences, providing programming broadcast networks shied away from.
In 2004, Showtime unveiled The L Word, a series that featured lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters. A sequel, The L Word: Generation Q, premiered in 2019.
Angels in America (2003)
HBO’s celebrated adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning play that contemplated the Aids epidemic and contemporary politics, featuring such screen legends as Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, is one of many LGBTQ+-oriented productions from the premium cable network.
Queer Eye (2003-07; 2018-21)
Five gay men who were experts in such fields as fashion, grooming and interior design became media stars in this hit personal makeover show. Originally called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the Bravo series shortened its title in its third season to provide makeovers to a broader cross-section of people. Netflix successfully rebooted the series in 2018.
Modern Family (2009-20)
ABC’s huge, broad-based sitcom hit introduced viewers to Mitchell and Cameron, a loving couple who adopt and raise a baby daughter, facing all the joys and challenges of parenthood. Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet), who married in the fifth season in 2014, offered a portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters that hasn’t always been common on TV.
How does Modern Family star and America’s Got Talent judge Sofía Vergara spend her US$180 million fortune?
RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-2021)
Orange Is the New Black (2013-19)
Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to earn a prime time Emmy nomination for her portrayal of inmate Sophia Burset in Netflix’s dramedy that centred on the diverse population of a minimum-security women’s prison.
Amazon’s comedy-drama about an older trans woman and her family drew acclaim and awards, including a Golden Globe and a Peabody, and featured a crew that included dozens of trans workers. But some questioned the casting of cisgender man Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman and, later, allegations of sexual harassment against him led to Tambor’s early departure.
Supergirl (2015-21) and Black Lightning (2017-19)
Two of CW’s DC Comics series, both produced by Berlanti, broke new ground. In 2018, Supergirl introduced TV’s first transgender superhero Nia Nal/Dreamer (played by Nicole Maines, a trans woman) and Lightning launched network TV’s first lesbian superhero, Anissa Pierce/Thunder and later Blackbird (Nafessa Williams).
Mr. Ratburn, the beloved junior school teacher on PBS’ animated children’s show, finally took the plunge in 2019, marrying chocolate shop owner Patrick. Arthur and other students, who attend the wedding, approved.
Producer Murphy took viewers to New York’s drag ball scene in the 1980s and 1990s with this drama focused largely on the black and Latino LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming competitors and a cast that featured five transgender actors. Billy Porter, who stood out as emcee and fashion designer Pray Tell, became the first openly gay black man to win an Emmy as lead actor.
- Celebrate Pride Month by looking back at LGBT moments on American TV since the 1970s, from Pose and Modern Family to Queer Eye and Queer as Folk
- When Joe Biden endorsed marriage equality in 2012, he even cited the influence of Primetime Emmy Award-winning NBC comedy Will & Grace