We've come a long way, baby.
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."
4. Made for Reality TV
As all this was going on, the reality genre was slowly taking over television. As LGBT people were making their way into scripted television at the same time, it was only natural we would be included in shows like The Real World, Survivor, and Big Brother. People like Richard Hatch — an aggressive, scheming competitor — gave the world a more complex view of what LGBT people were like, and it turned out they were just like straight people. ¡Que sorpresa!
Of course, there were other reasons we as a community were made for reality TV. Since the genre increasingly traded in living, breathing stock characters and stereotypes, people realized that, well, our stereotypes were just more fun. Stylists! Drag queens! Camp! Bitchiness! Designers! Promiscuity! Makeovers! There was a period where any remake-your-life show worth its salt — whether the target was your wardrobe, your bedroom, or your makeup routine — needed a homosexual to make it to the air.
People who are just coming out, as I was at the time, often have a period of nearly militant queerness; when you feel like you can be yourself for the first time, you want to make goddamn sure everyone knows it. For me, this was about the most flamingly gay I have ever been in my life. And I had so many role models to choose from!
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was the epitome of the idea that homos — and again, we're still mostly talking gay men here — were not just fairies in the derogatory sense, but actual fairies who would turn your pumpkin of a life into a glamorous carriage. Thankfully, we've moved to more nuanced versions of this idea. The LGBT people of shows like Project Runway, Top Chef, and So You Think You Can Dance may excel in fields typically associated with gayness, but the shows emphasize that to excel at any of these pursuits requires enormous talent and dedication. On the other extreme, more recent shows like RuPaul's Drag Race and Drag U have simply embraced everything campy, trashy, and stereotypical with a surprising amount of wit and depth, subverting competition and makeover shows by taking them to their extremes.
5. The Freedom to be Terrible
If you read the recent report from GLAAD, you know that there are currently more LGBT characters on TV than ever before, and not because of niche channels like Logo or here!. We're all over the place, in more variations and versions than ever before. Rattle off the names of almost any critically lauded series or ratings juggernaut, and you'll probably find at least one LGBT recurring or main character: Glee, The Good Wife, Revenge, Modern Family, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, True Blood. And we finally have actual lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and LGBT people of color. (Note: that does not mean we have enough, because we don't. LGBT representation on TV is still overwhelmingly white and male.)
And there are other exciting developments: LGBT characters are no longer strictly adults or conflicted and confused teens. An episode of Glee I happened to catch last year — disco-themed; I don't recommend it — featured two gay characters, one lesbian, one bisexual girl, and a high-school aged transwoman, all confidently embracing their identities. Teen shows like Teen Wolf, Pretty Little Liars, and Awkward. regularly feature young, happy LGBT characters, a phenomenon that was simply nonexistent when I was still in school.
What's most exciting to me, though, is that LGBT characters, and shows that explicitly deal with LGBT themes, have the freedom — if I'm being blunt — to totally suck. Think of The New Normal or Partners, both of which premiered this year and both of which critics have lambasted. What's wrong with these shows? Stale comedy, awkward tonal shifts, bad dialogue, lack of characterization: you name it. But we've come to a place where I can say these things and not feel the tinge of guilt and sadness that I used to. When you can only see your identity reflected in a handful of places, you're willing to overlook a lot. And to criticize a show like Queer As Folk felt like a disservice to The Cause: it's all we've got! Cut it some slack! But now, we have options. We can choose and we can be critical. And that feels great.