I couldn’t list all the examples of LGBTQ visibility on TV today. There are too many. If you were to include only current and recent shows such as “Euphoria,” “Love, Victor,” the new “Queer as Folk,” “Feel Good,” “Work in Progress,” and “Sex Education,” you’d find more openly LGBTQ characters on TV now than there were during the entire 20th century. So, in recognition of Pride Month, I’m just naming some of my favorite series, characters, and moments, a kind of semi-random slideshow of the ones that have meant something to me over the years. Despite the fact that we’re now in a wave of anti-LGBTQ sentiment politically, here are some of the steps forward television has made.
MTV’s “The Real World: San Francisco” in 1994, the early reality show’s third season, was a remarkable slice of life thanks to Zamora, whose activism was a thing of beauty. He humanized being gay, being HIV+, and being a romantic (rather than purely sexual) gay man, and his bravery was moving and inspiring. Zamora educated his housemates — and the viewing public — on HIV/AIDS, which ultimately killed him hours after the season finale aired, and he modeled how to stand up and maintain grace when faced with bigotry, ignorance, and hate (as embodied by housemate Puck). He and his boyfriend, Sean, exchanged vows in what was among TV’s first gay “marriage” ceremonies.
A real-life lesbian in 1830s England who is gender-nonconforming, a business powerhouse, and able to live and love somewhat openly? What a story, not least of all about pride, bravery, and self-awareness. Suranne Jones is one of my favorite actresses, and this HBO show — which just wrapped its second season — is a big reason why. She plays Anne Lister like a gale-force wind, refusing to succumb to the many obstacles in her way. Her Anne is one of TV’s best portraits of courage, and she offers a reminder that LGBTQ people did not suddenly appear in the 20th century.
Remember, there are plenty of Bs in the LGBTQ mix, and shows including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Grown-ish” have portrayed them. But this six-episode British treat from 2018, directed, co-written, and starring Desiree Akhavan, is one of the few shows to zero in on the subject, and it does so with equal parts humor and wisdom. It’s a look at what happens when a lesbian, Akhavan’s Leila, falls into the arms of a man after a breakup. She feels compelled to go back in the closet around her judgy lesbian friends, and she has to go through the difficult process of coming out all over again. Even within the LGBTQ world, the show notes, there are bigots. (You can see “The Bisexual” on Hulu.)
“THE L WORD” and “QUEER AS FOLK”
There’s something special about getting a dishy soap opera of your very own, no? The American “Queer as Folk” premiered in 2000, and “The L Word” showed up in 2004, and both focused on LGBTQ characters instead of giving us a token queer among straights whose sexual orientation was their primary quality. These characters weren’t in the story for comic relief or as AIDS tragedies; they were the story, as people dealing with love, friendship, and families of choice, all with some of the histrionics and excesses of the genre made famous by the likes of “Dallas.”
THE LATE 1990s, OF COURSE
With the coming-out episode of “Ellen” in 1997 and the premiere of “Will & Grace” in 1998, network TV became more willing to feature gay characters (and openly gay actors) in primetime — having resisted it due to risk-averse advertisers. “Will & Grace” drew more than 17 million weekly viewers at its peak, a breakthrough that had been built up to slowly by other forward-thinking network shows such as “My So-Called Life” and “Thirtysomething.” “Will & Grace,” in particular, went a long way in defusing the issue as it made light fun of people of all sexual orientations. When then-vice president Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriage in 2012, he cited “Will & Grace” as a factor in American society’s evolution, saying, rightly I think, “‘Will & Grace’ did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.”
This indelible, extraordinary show about trans women and gay men gave us a rich perspective on families of choice and their sustaining power during times of emotional, physical, and financial hardship. Set in the early years of AIDS and the 1980s Harlem ballroom scene, it was about survival no matter what. Led largely by trans performers — an important landmark — the acting was stunning, with all the drama-queenliness you might expect, anchored by a wide range of emotional subtlety. The extended ballroom scenes, led by the miraculous Billy Porter as the witty, shady emcee, are funny, flamboyant, and vibrant.
This 2019 Netflix series is, as promised, special. It gives us a gay man, Ryan, whose body type falls outside the TV bubble of gay men with ad-perfect gym bodies. Created by and starring Ryan O’Connell, it’s an auto-fictional comedy-drama about living as a gay man with cerebral palsy. It’s refreshingly frank, as O’Connell chronicles his life without coming off as either excessively heroic or victimy. He is endearing, clever, and self-ironic, and we can see how he uses his sharp wit to cover his rampant insecurity. Ryan’s loving but codependent relationship with his mother (a lovely Jessica Hecht) is a bittersweet subplot.
Thanks to the groundbreaking sitcom master, many difficult social issues found their way onto TV. Lear delivered an episode of “All in the Family” in 1971, “Judging Books by Their Covers,” that directly challenged viewers’ stereotypes. Archie is not pleased when son-in-law Michael and daughter Gloria invite their effeminate — but, as Michael says, not gay — friend for lunch. Archie goes out to the bar, where he runs into an old friend, Steve, who is masculine and used to be a football player. Yup, he’s gay, which inspires Archie to arm-wrestle him — twice. Archie’s worldview has been rocked.