It's been a confusing coming out for the gay man in American television. There have been the obviously gay characters, the obviously straight characters, and then that murky grey zone filled with many a queer question mark.
Like Paul Lynde in Bewitched… or Paul Lynde in Hollywood Squares…or basically just Paul Lynde. Also the entire cast of Frasier. But the creation of an openly gay character who doesn't exclusively read like Hank Azaria in The Birdcage has been 40 years in the making. To quench my curiosity as to how we got to hosts like Carson Kressley and primetime princesses like Queer as Folk, I took a look at decades gone by to see what brought us here, to televisions queer reign.
Ah, the ‘70's. Hot pants were in, Beaver Cleaver was out, and the radio waves were rocked by headdress wearing construction workers and other Village People in skin-tight uniform. Perhaps this surge in spandex is what gave ABC the cojones to put the first gay TV character in their 1972 sit com The Corner Bar, a show about a hodgepodge of regulars at (you guessed it) the corner bar. His name was Peter Panama and his set designing ways set him apart from the other men in for a brew. Remember him? Unfortunately neither do I. Ol' Peter was written out in an effort to save the ratings, but even slamming shut that closet door couldn't save this flop. Two years later, the network tried again with their ratings loser Hot L Baltimore, which featured a gay couple and two prostitutes all living together in the dilapidated Hotel Baltimore (oooo the title, I get it.) The network was clearly worried about scandalizing the viewership and played a content warning prior to each episode. Sadly, even warnings couldn't prepare our old frontier for these hotel queers and this show folded after an unlucky 13 episodes.
If at first ABC was trying for relative tact and subtlety, they quickly realized caricatures were a far more successful way of keeping primetime ratings a-flowing. So along came Barney Miller, a show about cops doing cop things, like shooting the crap down at the precinct. Mixed in with the murderers and hoodlums, the cops were also keeping the streets safe from the gay purse-snatching duo Marty and Darryl, because what gay man can't stop himself from swiping an old woman's Fendi clutch? Marty was only borderline flamboyant but, Darryl looked like a roller skating extra from Can't Stop the Music. The cops apparently found this threatening and cuffed Darryl for being "unique" and "enthusiastic." Ah, the justice system at work.
Billy Crystal usually gets the nod for playing the first gay man on television, but hopefully by now we've righted that rumor. Still, his Jodie Dallas on the soap opera farce Soap would definitely have been the most tweeted by today's standards. Jodie was the gay son in one of the shows important families and his dress wearing and womanly walk had early audiences howling. (Insert canned laughter here.) Jodie did the service of being the shows biggest punch line, with most of the laughs coming from the creative reasoning, "because you're a homo." But by 1981 Jodie was practically hetero. His dress wearing had been written out and he was now a pants-wearing man, who had nearly married a woman and was suddenly a dateless Dad.
These trail blazers bring us on into the…
The ‘80's were a rough PR decade for the gay community, so primetime did what they saw fit – made ‘em straight…or at least, sort of straight. In crossing the decade threshold, Billy Crystal had gone from a dress wearing Nancy to a khaki wearing Joe. But if that isn't enough to convince you, let's look at a few more examples of the ‘80's love for a neutered gay man. Example one; "Love Sidney" a 1981 made for TV movie about a gay man living with a straight woman and her daughter. It was followed by the creatively named series "Love Sidney," but here the homosexuality bit had been cut. (Or should we say, neutered?) Not convinced? Steven Carrington of Dynasty fame, the hot blond with perfect Ken-doll coif and jaw, moved out of the mansion when he told the Carrington clan that he would never be into Barbie. Well, at least not until season 7, when he would give into heavy sexual tension with Sammy Jo (swear to God that's a woman not a trucker), and consequently gets so confused by his sexuality that he goes out for a fateful horseback ride. (Wouldn't you go out for a fateful horseback ride when you were sexually confused?) Even though Steven was a gay character for like a bazillion seasons, he was still lured into bed by the wiles of a woman. Neutered…well, maybe hetero-d.
Still unconvinced? Third times a charm. Hooperman, another ‘80's drama, featured gay cop Rick, whose hot female partner uses her boobs and soft skin in an attempt to "save" Rick from being gay. Poor Rick is so busy fending of this crazy Reagan voter he has no time for a date! Neutered.
Luckily our gay characters see a lot more man action when we get to the…
The 1890's were referred to as the "Gay ‘90's," and for the 1990's it looks like we can say the same. Suddenly, no show was complete without a sexually confused16 year old coming out to his fabulous female best friend. Did anyone else stay up late to watch reruns of My So-Called Life on The N? Well in 1994, those characters were fresh faces, and Claire Danes' flat topped bestie was the gay homeless kid from down the block, and who didn't love Rickie? Sure, he had it hard, but in 1994 America learned that being gay is tough! (and doesn't always involve spandex or cross dressing). The show was a few years ahead of it's time, but one season was enough to pave the road for the rest of the decade.
The year was 1998, and while straight girls all over the country were pulling a Joey and climbing into their boyfriend's bedroom windows, Dawson's Creek was also making gay TV history with Jack McPhee. Who didn't cry when Jack was outted in English class? Who wasn't at the edge of the couch when Jack had his first chaste gay kiss with his internet crush? And neither Jack nor Ricky could have done it without the help of a hot lady friend. Teenagers around the country were hooked. Suddenly we knew: being gay was effing hard! But also effing fabulous.
And if anyone was worried that these gay besties would drop by the wayside with age, Sex and the City promised us that friends like Stanford are here to stay. So, even when we're 35 and still out ‘til 4am on a Monday night, at least we can split a cab with ol' Stannie.
There is no way to leave the ‘90's without a salute to Will and Grace. The show's mass appeal made being gay something understandable, even for couch potatoes in North Dakota. Jack walked the fine line between flamboyancy and a sex change, and Will had every man woman and child falling in love with him. Maybe you wanted Will to make out with Grace, and maybe you didn't but either way its hats off to the gay ‘90's. In with a bang and out with, well, a bang.
Which brings us here. The reign of the gays. We still have our queen, our teens, or, in the case of Kurt on Glee, even our teen queens. But these days, anything goes. Queer is the new black, and no longer are gay characters locked into stereotypes or storylines about their sexual confusion. Nowadays, every self respecting show has a resident gay character: Gossip Girl has Eric; Modern Family Mitchell and Cameron; True Blood has…what? A gay vampire? The punch line might still occasionally be "because you're a homo," but at least now those words aren't unconditionally funny. (Unless you're Lloyd on Entourage.) It took us 40 years, but we're finally here. Even Wisteria Lane has a few men batting for the other team. So as you settle in to watch your favorite episode of As the World Turns, (you know, the one where Luke and Noah finally kiss!), remember that had it not been for characters like Peter Panama, Jodie Dallas and Jack McPhee, Luke wouldn't be getting any.
Sit back and enjoy. These days, the show won't be canceled for having a gay character…but it might be canceled if it doesn't.
Elena Sheppard grew up in Brooklyn; meaning she lived here back when the guy in the fedora was just the neighborhood pimp. She is a writer who recently returned from a year living abroad in Thailand. You can check out her misadventures on the Asian scene at elenadoesthailand.blogspot.com (she promises they'll be more entertaining than The New Adventures of Old Christine.)