A Personal History of Gay TV

We've come a long way, baby.

By James Brady Ryan

When I used to chronicle my TV habits for Nerve, I maintained that I wasn't raised by TV — I would say it was more of a nanny. But in truth, there were lots of things I learned from television that I couldn't or didn't want to learn from my parents. There was the usual sex, drugs, and rock-'n'-roll knowledge gleaned from MTV, sure, but more importantly, TV was the place where a nerdy boy in the suburbs could learn what it meant to be gay. In many ways, representation of LGBT people on TV and I grew parallel to one another. Here, a few milestones in the journey towards queerness that my favorite medium and I shared together.

1. Before Gay

I couldn't say for sure who was the first LGBT person I ever saw on TV. If I had to guess, it was probably one of the super-flamboyant, obviously-gay-but-totally-closeted queens who showed up in sitcoms from the '50s and '60s. Think Paul Lynde in Bewitched. Even as a child, sitting at the foot of my grandma's bed while she watched Nick at Nite, I recognized something about these characters in myself.

Even before I knew what gay was, I felt some kind of kinship with these men, who could be summed up with the word "fancy." (I distinctly remember a lot of floral patterns being involved.) This was a period of innuendo and broad caricature, but I don't even know if I could have really gotten the concept of homosexuality if it had actually been presented on screen. Instead, it was a connection at a more animal level — the idea that somehow, that was me. It wasn't about sex at this point, but about boys who don't play sports, who like dressing up, who do musical theater. (This was horribly stereotypical, obviously. But as it turned out, so was I.)

2. Reaching Out to the Heteros

As the '90s rolled around, TV had featured a handful of openly gay characters. Some were sexual deviants in police procedurals, some were swishy queens, and one or two were treated with something like respect. (Thank you, Golden Girls, now and forever.) But in the latter half of the decade — just as I was starting to understand not just what being gay was, but also that I was probably it — LGBT characters started to make bigger inroads, most notably in sitcoms.

Not to go full Joe Biden, but seeing something like Will & Grace, which I often watched with my parents, did make a difference. Coming out is pretty much always scary, even if you know your family is accepting. But watching my parents watch explicitly gay characters gay it up on a show they enjoyed provided a bit of encouragement. Will & Grace was the apogee of this trend, but a handful of other popular (or infamous) comedies — Ellen, Roseanne, Friends, Spin City — had lead or recurring LGBT characters.

Like me, these characters were beginning the process of introducing themselves to the straight community and the world at large. But we had something else in common. As a rule, these characters were all more or less asexual. One of the big complaints leveled at Will & Grace was that, while Grace had multiple important relationships as well as a good number of flings, Will's bedroom was never really rocking. Gays could be stylish, rich, attractive, and funny, but our actual sexuality remained behind closed doors. As a twelve-year old, I was okay with that — no tween wants to hear about sex with their parents in the room — but looking back on it, the critics had a very strong case.

3. Our Bodies, Ourselves

But then, a change occurred. For me, it was puberty and all the usual urges, horrors, anxieties, and emotions. For TV, it was the rise of premium cable channels. Free from advertisers and censors, channels like HBO and Showtime could present LGBT characters who actually had sex. (Or at least had boyfriends. Maybe they kissed.) Sex and the City, Oz, and Six Feet Under all had queer characters — mostly gay men, it should be noted — with personalities, backstories, and motivations as rich as any other characters on the show. (Thankfully, my parents sprung for these channels, and double thankfully, we didn't really watch these shows together. Except Sex and the City, but let's call that a weird anomaly.)

But then came a show that blew everything before it out of the water: Queer As Folk. An American remake of a British series, QAF was a sensation when it premiered. A show with an almost exclusively non-heterosexual main cast, who took off their clothes a lot and used words like "rimming" — would anyone even watch it? If you were a gay man over the age of thirteen: almost definitely!

For a certain age group of gay men, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Queer As Folk functioned as porn before we found real porn. The ritual around it certainly felt that way: I would watch it alone, late at night, with the sound down and the lights low so no one would know. Was there a plot? I guess, but if I'm being honest, that was probably a secondary concern. (Real talk: the show was kind of a mess.)

Once again, the biggest strides were being made with gay male characters. While QAF did pay some lip service to American lesbian culture, it was generally ham-fisted and overly broad about queer women. It would be a few years until The L Word came out, which was just as soap-y and silly as QAF but did a better job with lesbian and bisexual women, transfolk, and queer characters of color. (This is a case of art imitating life. Many people feel that mainstream "gay culture" is mostly dominated by and geared towards white, well-off gay men; as a white, not-quite-so-well-off gay man, I'd like to state for the record that I completely agree.)

NEXT: "Homos were not just fairies in the derogatory sense, but actual fairies who would turn your pumpkin of a life into a glamorous carriage."

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