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Gays on prime time

From 'Will and Grace' to 'ER,' gay themes and characters change the TV landscape.

By Kim Campbell Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 2001

In a recent episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on the WB, two of Buffy's pals share a meaningful kiss at an emotional moment. Some viewers may not have thought twice about it. But this nonpublicized kiss between two women is one sign that things have changed in the four years since the protests over the "coming out" of "Ellen" on ABC.

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Turn on prime-time TV today, and you're likely to surf across about a dozen shows that feature significant gay characters - from "Spin City" to "ER." Or perhaps you'll land on one of the three programs that center on the lives of homosexuals, two of which have debuted in the last six months (CBS's sitcom "Some of My Best Friends" and Showtime's sexually explicit "Queer as Folk").

That number could grow next season when at least two more sitcoms with gay

lead characters will likely hit the air, including a new one starring Ellen DeGeneres, who also starred in "Ellen."

Programs about gay life don't outnumber those about policemen and lawyers just yet. But their growth is prompting more discussion about what direction the genre will take, and how it is affecting the way sexuality is talked about at America's hearth.

Many in Hollywood attribute the change on TV to the groundwork laid by "Ellen" and the recent success of NBC's gay-man/straight-woman sitcom "Will & Grace" - which has won a shelffull of Emmys and and is a regular in the Top 20 ratings.

" 'Will & Grace' has had a profound effect on the landscape of gay characters on television," says Jeffery Richman, a former "Frasier" writer who has created a sitcom with a gay lead called "Say Uncle," in development for CBS.

'You need to tell some new stories'

Now that networks have realized that America can handle the idea of a gay leading character, it opens up more options for storytelling, says Mr. Richman, who is gay and stops short of calling what's happening a trend. "How many more domestic comedies or urban-cute 'Friends' knockoffs can you do? You need to break some barriers so you can tell some new stories."

Issues such as AIDS, gays in the military, and the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998 have brought more attention to the gay community in the past decade. Though the number of gay Americans is difficult to determine, 4 percent of voters identified themselves as gay or bisexual in the last presidential election, according to the Voter News Service.

Network and cable channels have aired or ordered at least three movies about Shepard - too many, say some critics. And Lifetime, the cable channel for women, had its highest ratings in five years for an original movie from a story last year about a teenage lesbian ("The Truth About Jane"). It followed up earlier this year with a movie about a lesbian fighting for custody of her child ("What Makes a Family").

"TV is really leading the way for America to talk about gay and lesbian issues," says Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a group that monitors how the media represents gay people.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled about the development. But the outcry has been far less than in the "Ellen" days, when advertisers yanked ads, and many in the public were up in arms.

A least one group, the South Dakota Family Policy Council, took out full-page newspaper ads protesting Showtime when "Queer as Folk" debuted in December. And Hawaii-based Stop Promoting Homosexuality has protested same-sex kissing on the teen drama "Dawson's Creek," which, like "Buffy," airs on the WB.

Those in the gay community say more programs with gay characters on the air help encourage tolerance and diminish isolation among gays and their families.

"What I'm moved by is the fact that I've had so many lesbian mothers come up to me and say, 'You're making the world a better place for my child,' " says Michelle Clunie, a straight actress who plays a lesbian parent on Showtime's "Queer as Folk," in an interview.

That show has developed a big following among both gay and straight viewers (especially college students and women) and is considered to be one of the first to depict homosexuals more fully. Though gay fans say the show is helping them to come out to their families, the more demure in the gay community say its man-on-the-make approach doesn't reflect their lives.

TV at the 'Sidney Poitier stage'

Over on network TV, the two sitcoms that feature gay lead characters stick more to mass appeal. "Will & Grace" and "Some of My Best Friends" both offer a lead character that is subtly gay and supporting characters that are wildly flamboyant.