On a 1967 TV special titled The Homosexuals, American audiences were grimly informed that “the average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested or capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.”
While it sounds like a parody of a homophobic PSA, it’s an accurate portrayal of the era’s fears and misconceptions about homosexuality. (And it got worse, devolving quickly into ever more derogatory clichés about gay men’s mental health and secret agendas.)
Nearly half a century later, television has changed so radically that it feels almost like a different medium. But one thing remains the same: It’s still a revealing reflection of the culture that surrounds and creates it—and oftentimes an important influencer, too. As such, it remains a bellwether for those interested in the evolution of attitudes towards gays and lesbians.
According to Where We Are on TV Report, last season saw more LGBT characters represented on television than ever before. Matt Kane, the Associate Director for Entertainment Media at GLAAD, tells TakePart that in addition to an increase in volume, he sees an increase in the “diversity of representation.” In other words, while gay characters have been a presence on television, the portrayals have been limited in scope and diversity.
“What might have been the most common archetypes of the past,” says Kane, “which were very often well-off, white gay men, we’re now seeing people from very diverse ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, and even age brackets…and that means more people are seeing themselves represented on television.”
Moreover, gay characters have become more complex and multidimensional. On shows like Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and pivot’s new comedy, Please Like Me, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender roles are a far cry from the token characters of yore. Josh Thomas, the Australian comedian who stars in and created Please Like Me, plays a young man who’s just coming out. But while the program does delve into the character’s romantic pursuits, it’s also a portrait of twentysomething life in all its madness: the dreaded move back in with mom, drama with friends, and social awkwardness in seemingly endless abundance. In other words, it’s not a show about a Gay Man, but a show about a man who’s gay—who’s also a son, a friend, a sometimes babysitter to his struggling parents, and a smartass.
Thomas, for his part, thinks of the show not as a coming-out story but as an opportunity to be truthful about situations, stories, and characters. “I never even thought about how people would react to the gay story line as a political statement,” he says. “I was just trying to think about how it really was.”
The freedom to tell a nuanced coming-out story is relatively recent. According to The Backlot, openly gay characters didn’t exist on television before 1961, and from the 1960s through the 1980s, they were few and far between. When they were allowed to emerge from the shadows, gay characters were often villains, evil-doing bogeymen who were sex-crazed or mentally deviant. The popular show Marcus Welby, M.D. featured attempts to “cure” a homosexual patient and portrayed a gay teacher as a pedophile. Police Woman aired an episode featuring three lesbians who ran a nursing home—which, naturally, they used as a front to rob and murder their patients.
Even at that time, audiences were beginning to make their anger over such depictions—and demand for something different—known. Homophobic plotlines inspired the first activism aimed at network television by the gay community. Protestors demonstrated outside of the studios that produced the Marcus Welby and Police Woman episodes, prompting them to pull them from their summer rerun schedules. And in 1973, when PBS aired America’s first reality television show, An American Family, Lance Loud, the family’s defiantly and openly gay eldest teenage son, became an icon for both gay and straight kids who embraced his determination to live without apology.
By the 1990s, hit shows like Melrose Place and thirtysomething featured gay characters who were—gasp!—mentally stable and law-abiding, albeit almost exclusively white, middle class, and celibate (save for the occasional woman-on-woman action during sweeps week). But when Ellen DeGeneres came out on national TV in 1997 in tandem with her sitcom character, 42 million viewers tuned in to watch. And a year later, mainstream American audiences embraced Will & Grace, which Vice President Biden famously credited with changing American attitudes towards gays and lesbians.
Indeed, there’s evidence to suggest that positive or normalizing portrayals of gay characters on television can actually impact people’s views. A poll conducted by The Hollywood Reporter last year revealed that television shows depicting gay couples made viewers more likely to support marriage equality.
Matt Kane’s experience backs this up. “Studies have certainly shown that knowing a gay person is one of the most influential things in terms of how someone is going to end up considering legislation or vote on an issue,” he says. “And when you don’t know anyone in your personal life, sometimes knowing a character on television is the next best thing.”
A character like Josh Thomas’s on Please Like Me seems poised to be that next best thing for anyone who tunes in: a likable, sympathetic, fallible, hilarious, very human person who happens to be gay. But in the end, Thomas’s goal is a lot like that of any artist: to tell compelling stories with insight, originality, and entertainment value. And he’d be happy to do it in a world where issues like LGBT rights don’t even have to be the focus.
“The dream,” he says, “is to just make it to the point where you don’t even have to have a conversation about it.”