Joe Biden once famously said that Will and Grace “did more to educate the American public [about gay rights] than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.” While some may have dismissed the statement as a typical, off-the-cuff Bidenism, others understood the implicit premise: that the (relatively) positive portrayal of gay characters on programs such as Will and Grace (1998-2006) and Modern Family (2009-present) helped get Americans used to the idea of LGBT people as good, ordinary friends, parents, and neighbors.
But can popular culture have such a direct effect on popular opinion? Given the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decisions in Lawrence (2003) and Obergefell (2015), it’s a question worth asking. Historians and other scholars of media have long known there is a danger in attributing too much causative power to any particular cultural work or technology. In the traditional model, media have effects: the pioneers of media research in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Paul Lazarsfeld, sought to document how media directly affected those who read, listened to, or watched them. Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast instilled fear in a gullible and uncritical populace in 1938; Nazi loudspeakers forced propaganda on all those within earshot. The flow of influence was thought to be strictly top-down in the heyday of mass media and the early days of media research during the mid-twentieth century.
Scholars went on, of course, to develop a more subtle and dynamic understanding of how media and audiences interacted. Notwithstanding the technological determinism of Marshall McLuhan’s pop sociology of “the medium is the message” in the 1960s, many historians and social scientists realized that cultural producers, media technologies, and popular audiences exist in a more reciprocal and mutually constitutive relationship. Media do not just inflict particular positions on impressionable listeners and viewers; as thinkers such as Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall showed in the 1970s, popular tastes and diverse political impulses engage with dominant institutions, such as the popular press and broadcast media, to produce a more complex picture of interaction between consumers and producers of media.
What does this mean for the fortunes of LGBT equality in popular media? Quite simply, it means that sitcoms and films did not drive the debate alone, guided by a liberal political agenda in Hollywood—but nor did changing popular attitudes by themselves directly cause the production of entertainment with a more sympathetic bent for LGBT communities.
This survey of portrayals of gay and lesbian characters is necessarily partial and incomplete, but it hopes to provide a window into the decades-long quest by many well-meaning artists to humanize LGBT people in American pop culture. No doubt these TV shows and movies helped move the needle of popular opinion, though often the needle moved along with the broader currents of an increasingly diverse and tolerant society from the 1970s to the early 2000s.
Undoubtedly Soap (1977-1981) was among the first portrayals of an openly gay character on television, generating controversy through the character of Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal). As far back as 1962’s Advise and Consent, a political drama directed by Otto Preminger and starring Henry Fonda, included a subplot that obliquely implied a gay past for a closeted Utah Senator, with a brief peek into an underworld of gay bars and other spaces years before Stonewall. The possibility of alternative sexualities percolated through popular culture in the 1970s, from the macho kitsch of the Village People to androgyny of glam. Moronic sitcom Three’s Company (1977-1984) introduced the idea of real estate as a pretext for sexual adventurism—John Ritter’s character had to pretend to be gay in order to rent a room with two straight women, a premise that seems ludicrously old-fashioned in light of todays co-ed mores—while Bosom Buddies (1980-1982) featured a young Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari in a similarly bizarre and contrived plot, in which the two men must dress as women in order to score an apartment.
Hanks and Scolari’s characters may not have been gay or transgender, but their cross-dressing allowed for at least an opening to thinking about gender roles and norms as fluid—in much the same way that Milton Berle did with his drag acts in the naïve early days of live television. Such gender-bending subplots became such a cliché that Community’s Abed once asked Jeff if he had “an old drinking buddy who may or may not have had a sex change,” to which Jeff responds, “Why are you mining my life for classic sitcom scenarios?”
One of the first times I am aware of a transgender character being featured on TV was Night Court (1984-1992), the raunchy and slightly subversive late 1980s comedy that followed the misadventures of the staff of a quirky New York City court. Dan (John Larroquette) was the libidinous DA, notorious for his rapacious sexual appetite. In one awkward but seemingly well-intentioned episode, an old friend of Dan’s comes back to make a startling confession: the former he now identified as a she. Notably, the character was played by a genetic male, unlike many other, later portrayals of transwomen in which a genetic female inevitably plays the role (e.g. 2005’s Transamerica, Mac’s girlfriend in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
Dan’s response seems deplorable in light of today’s more accepting attitudes: he is horrified and seems, unaccountably, betrayed by his friend’s revelation, as if it is somehow her duty to apologize and win him over to this unsettling new concept of changing gender identity. Given the time that it was released (1985), the episode arguably makes a sincere attempt to depict a poorly understood issue in a sympathetic light, even if the result feels painfully dated today. (In a long effort to make the idiotic bailiff Bull understand the concept of sex reassignment, Judge Harry eventually succeeds by slicing a paper cut-out of a person in half and turning around the lower portion—a sex change is literally an inversion of gender, putting the anus on front, more or less, and Bull finally gets it. Not very cool at all.)
Depictions of gay characters became more frequent on TV by the early 1990s. Roseanne (1988-1997) boldly included Martin Mull as the star’s manager at the diner, and portrayed him and his male partner sympathetically, while Friends (1994-2004) had Ross’s ex-wife and her female partner as recurring characters. (Friends definitely loses points, though, for its homophobic and transphobic subplots and running gags concerning Chandler Bing.) For whatever reason, gay male relationships seemed to be more the focus of popular culture in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries: for every Piper in Orange Is the New Black, we can think of a Cam, Mitchell, Will, and so forth. Even when lesbianism emerged, however awkwardly, in shows like Seinfeld or Friends, it was in terms of the (threatened) masculinity of the man who “ruined” a woman for men. The storyline of George and Susan in Seinfeld seems particularly squeamish today, as the loathsome and utterly unattractive George frets about his ex “going” gay in his aftermath and somehow wins her back to the straight side, defying all the rules of physics and natural law.
Of course, if it was still controversial in some quarters for Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston to have an interracial relationship in 1992, gay relationships remained potentially explosive in popular culture, as same-sex kissing or other forms of intimacy were seldom displayed in mainstream television or film. I recall an episode of the underrated series Picket Fences in which two men kissed in the mid-1990s, but it was portrayed in lurid fashion—I think at least one of the two was a serial killer. Not long after, the burgeoning of original content on cable created a new, freer space for depiction of LGBT relationships in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as David and Keith’s romance on Six Feet Under (2001-2005), while even network television began to make more room for well-rounded, fully developed gay characters in shows like Will and Grace and Modern Family.
Undoubtedly these works accustomed people to the basic decency and humanity of LGBT characters—the 1996 film The Birdcage, for all its broad, queen-y stereotypes, still helped my mom get over some of her latent homophobic sentiments, since she had seldom seen gays or lesbians portrayed as members of loving, responsible families before. Pop culture does matter. But few of these TV shows or films would have found a ready audience if attitudes among the young and old were not already changing—among the young, who did not take homophobic conventional wisdom for granted, and among the middle-aged and older, who had increasingly come to know gay friends, siblings, coworkers, children, and parents who had come out.
The shift toward values of social liberalism is an example of good, old-fashioned dialectics at their crystal clearest: thesis (homophobia) and antithesis (humanism) produced a new synthesis, in the form of the white, male, bougie figures of Will and Mitchell and Cam. In this regard, gay characters have come along way since the first oblique nods to a male underworld in the 1960s and 1970s, as writers for TV and film gradually introduced audiences to increasingly normalized figures of non-straight sexuality.
The story of transpeople began later, at least in terms of registering in mainstream pop culture, and it has much farther to go. The Patrick Swayze/John Leguizamo/Wesley Snipes epic To Wong Foo (1995) and Australian indie hit Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) began to broach the topic of trans identity, but they did so in comfortably familiar terms. Drag can be both a statement of identity and a joke on femininity—think of Some Like It Hot (1959) or Tootsie (1982). Even if To Wong Foo or Priscilla were going different places politically than earlier drag films, audiences could deal with the idea of Patrick Swayze in a dress as a laugh line. (As Tracy Jordan once said, “I think you like to dress black men as Oprah as part of your effort to protect our dignity.” And who doesn’t love Julie Newmar, who was pretty much the greatest Catwoman ever?)
We find ourselves in a very interesting moment today. Gay relationships are everyday business in the work of pop culture, even if some of the baby boomers and Silent Generation are still not on-board. But trans characters have a long way to go in terms of acceptance. The indie breakout hit Tangerine (2015) presents a lively and fresh portrayal of characters seldom seen on the screen, big or small—transgender sex workers in Los Angeles—but all I could think of was how little had changed since similarly disadvantaged and marginalized characters appeared in the groundbreaking documentary Paris Is Burning twenty-five years ago.
Indeed, the present moment offers a very mixed picture, from the tentative acceptance of actors such as Laverne Cox to the frequently abusive and demeaning reception that Caitlyn Jenner has received from many conservatives, for whom gender identity remains a treacherous and misunderstood territory. If the story of gays and lesbians in American popular culture is any indication, the trans community can hope to win the end—but how long it takes attitudes, often glacial in nature, to change remains to be seen.
This post is for Polythene Pam. RIP, sweet princess.