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Gay characters, before and after 'Ellen'

By Kim Campbell / April 6, 2001



The history of gay characters on television has gone through several phases, says pop culture guru Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University. They range from the 1950s - when there really weren't any - to the post-"Ellen" era we're in now. Below is a list (not meant to be comprehensive) of some key events and programs that he and other observers say chronicle how homosexuals have been portrayed on TV.

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1970s

Gay characters and lifestyles begin to emerge.

1972: That Certain Summer, a TV movie staring Hal Holbrook as a gay man who discovers that his son has found out his secret.

1973:An American Family, a PBS series in which one of the family's sons reveals his homosexuality.

1977-81: Soap, a sitcom with a large ensemble cast in which Billy Crystal stars as "Jodie Dallas," an openly gay character.

1980s

It becomes avant-garde to include gay characters in ensemble casts. Shows with gay characters include Hill Street Blues and Thirtysomething.

1981-83: Love, Sydney, a sitcom based on a made-for-TV movie about a gay man who shares his apartment with a single mom. Both star Tony Randall, but while in the movie it is clear that Sydney is gay, in the sitcom it is not mentioned.

1984-1989: Brothers, the first original sitcom produced for pay-cable TV (Showtime) and one of the first programs in which a major character is gay.

1990s

1991: On L.A. Law, two women characters share the first same-sex romantic kiss on prime time.

1997: Ellen becomes the first network sitcom in which the main character goes public with the news that she's gay. (Its star, Ellen DeGeneres, also reveals that she's a lesbian.)

1998: Debut of Will & Grace, a sitcom about a gay man and a straight woman who are roommates. Its popularity, and the groundwork laid by "Ellen," leads the way for a crop of new shows with gay lead characters.

2000

On Dawson's Creek, two male teens share the first gay-male romantic kiss on prime time.

The Truth About Jane, a movie on the cable channel Lifetime, focuses on a teen learning how to cope with being a lesbian. It was the network's highest-rated original movie in five years.

If These Walls Could Talk 2, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Sharon Stone, and Ellen DeGeneres. A semi-follow up to the first "If These Walls Could Talk," with three segments about lesbian couples. Redgrave wins an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Normal, Ohio debuts in the fall, starring John Goodman as a gay dad. It's canceled after six weeks.

Queer as Folk debuts on the pay-cable channel Showtime in December. The sexually explicit drama is primarily about single urban gay men.

2001

What Makes a Family, a Lifetime movie based on a true story about a lesbian, who, after her partner dies, fights to retain custody of their daughter. Starring Brooke Shields.

Some of My Best Friends, debuts in the spring on CBS. It is a sitcom about two male roommates, one gay and the other straight.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor