The Evolution of Gay TV

By Maddie Braun

The representation of LGBT characters on television has come a long way since 1971, when the sitcom “All in the Family” introduced the first openly gay character on broadcast TV. “All in the Family” tackled many controversial topics in its 12-year run, but the subject of homosexuality was an especially timely topic, as the gay rights movement was just beginning at that point. The show started many conversations and brought new, heavier topics into the public eye. For five consecutive years, from 1971 to 1976, the show ranked #1 in the Nielsen ratings, which measure audience size. There was both support and disapproval for the subject matter of the show. President Nixon, for example, expressed in an interview that he did not think the homosexuality represented in the show belonged on TV. Forty four years later, the representation of LGBT characters on television has changed drastically. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) annual report on the diversity of television characters shows how.

During the 2014-2015 season, there were 65 LGBT regular and recurring characters on scripted primetime broadcast series. This made up 3.9% of the regular characters, up 0.6% from the 2013-2014 season. Besides these regular characters, there were also 33 recurring LGBT characters on these series. On cable series during the 2014-2015 season, there were 64 regular LGBT characters, including 41 recurring characters.

The racial diversity of LGBT characters has also broadened over the years. Interestingly, the diversity of LGBT broadcast characters mirrors the diversity shown among broadcast regular characters of all sexualities. Of all of the broadcast characters this season, the make-up was 73% white, 13% black, 8% Latino/a, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2% multi-racial. Of the LGBT broadcast characters, 74% were white, 11% were black, 11% were Latino/a, 5% were Asian/Pacific Islander, and there were no multi-racial LGBT characters. While the percentages of black and multi-racial characters were lower among the LGBT characters, the percentages of Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander characters were slightly higher. On cable series, the racial diversity of LGBT characters was even greater. The make-up on these series was 66% white, 10% black, 11% Latino/a, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 8% multi-racial.

As these statistics show, diversity amongst LGBT television is growing. This diversity does not pertain just to race and sexuality. These characters represent different age categories, economic standpoints, careers, family situations, and personalities.

Of all of the broadcast networks, Fox had the most LGBT characters, with an impressive 6.5% of their regular characters being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. One of the network’s new shows this season, “Empire,” a drama about a family in the music business, depicted two young gay characters: one regular character and one recurring character. The regular character here is Jamal, the young, black son of the main characters. The recurring character is his boyfriend Michael, a young Mexican man. Jamal faces negative attitudes from his parents regarding his sexuality, especially from his father. This is a main recurring theme on the show in regard to this character. Though Jamal’s mother thinks he will have trouble in the music industry because of his sexuality, she still supports him and believes he can become a star. His father, on the other hand, disapproves completely of his sexuality. Jamal is portrayed as a smart, talented musician, but he refuses to pursue a career in the music industry, due in part to struggles he envisions himself facing because of his sexuality.

Over on CBS, “The Good Wife” presents the character of Kalinda Sharma, a young bisexual Indian investigator who is good friends with the main character of the show. The character of Kalinda is powerful and compelling. Though she is revealed to have an estranged husband, she dates and engages in sexual activities with multiple men and women during the course of the show.

When LGBT characters first began appearing on television, they had a personality and story of their own, but the storylines regarding these characters were one-dimensional and faced the same issues of homophobia and disapproval. Both of the characters discussed here, along with many other LGBT characters on TV now, are strong, unique people that are more than just a label, even as they still face issues common to the LGBT community. They represent real people, with their diverse personalities and backgrounds, but facing the same issues underneath their differences. Even so, LGBT characters still make up a small percentage of all of those on television. There is an even larger, more diverse LGBT community in the real world, whose experiences are not all represented by these few television shows.

Of course, LGBT characters have always drawn both praise and criticism. One of the most recent controversies involved the television show “The Fosters” and the youngest gay kiss in TV history. Recently, two 13-year-old male characters were shown kissing on the show. Some made remarks calling the event a “sin” and “cultural suicide,” but the co creators of the show, Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg, spoke out in defense of the scene. Bredeweg explained, “When people question the scene my response has been: ‘Everyone has a first kiss and you remember it. How old were you?’ Ninety percent of people who have an answer come back and say, ‘I was 12, 13, and 14 years old,’ and I say, ‘Exactly. It was time to see this, time to put this up for the world.'”

Bredeweg’s point is fair, and brings to mind the progress that has been made so far on television. Homosexual romances in general were once seen as a huge taboo and were criticized, though graphic heterosexual romances were seen as acceptable. Over time LGBT characters and relationships have become much more accepted in the media. The young kiss will, hopefully, mirror this progress in television. Though it has caused a stir recently, it is over an issue that has been seen many times from young straight characters of the same age. Hopefully this scene will break ground and pave the way for young gay characters’ romances to be just as accepted as those of straight characters.

So the question remains, where are we now? LGBT representation on television has shown a definite improvement over the years, but is it enough? It seems to me that the diversity of television characters could, and should, be broadened even more. Steps are being made in the right direction, but hopefully in years to come, we will be able to look back at today’s lineup and see an even more diverse and accurate portrayal of LGBT characters.