In 1964, gay activist Randy Wicker appeared on the TV show, The Les Crane Show. Although it was broadcast on the East Coast of the United States only, it was nevertheless momentous due the fact that it was one of the first times that an openly gay man appeared on US television as an openly gay man. Eight years later, the first regular, fictional gay character, Peter Panama (Vincent Schiavelli, also known as the Subway Ghost in Ghost), showed up on the sitcom, The Corner Bar.
Rare were open LGBT characters or persons on television during the ‘60s and early to mid-‘70s. Frequently, those characters that did appear were either inconsequential or deviants, such as John Davidson’s cross-dressing killer on a 1974 episode of The Streets of San Francisco. In subsequent decades, the number of non-straight characters has risen astronomically, in large part due to the TV shows that featured AIDS storylines during the ‘80s, opening the door for non-AIDS storylines and other segments of the LGBT community besides sick males.
By now there have been hundreds of LGBT characters on TV in America, enough so that several “best” or “favorite” LGBT TV character lists have popped up in recent years. As is often the case with such lists, though, memory extends no further back than the early ‘90s (with the occasional nod to Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas on Soap). Crystal garnered considerable media attention for his portrayal of the gay / then not gay Jodie, as did Ellen DeGeneres when her sexual orientation was written into her sitcom, Ellen.
“Best of” and “favorite” lists don’t always include the most important LGBT characters, though. While some characters may not have been fan faves, they were still significant in shaping public perceptions and opening doors for other LGBT characters. So here, we pay tribute to the ten(ish) most significant LGBT characters in US TV history, non-Ellen edition, along with noting five(-ish) glaring errors in LGBT portrayals.
The Most Significant
Beverly LaSalle (Lori Shannon, aka Don McLean), All in the Family: The character of Beverly was originally intended to be a joke: after homophobic Archie Bunker discovers his passenger has lost consciousness in the back of his cab, he performs CPR on her, only to discover later that “she” is physically a “he”. However, the character made subsequent appearances, developing a loving friendship with Archie’s wife, Edith. Beverly’s murder in the 1977 episode “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” highlighted the social stigma against trans persons, an act of injustice emphasized by Edith’s inability to understand humanity’s rejection of people like her dear friend. Edith’s deep sense of loss for Beverly helped show that trans persons were worthy of love.
George and Gordon (Lee Bergere and Henry Calvert), Hot L Baltimore: Another Norman Lear sitcom, based on the 1973 Lanford Wilson play about residents of a hotel whose “e” has burned out in its neon sign, Hot L was revolutionary for 1975, featuring two prostitutes as its primary characters and a 50-something gay couple, George and Gordon, who were TV’s first gay couple. More importantly, they were an older gay couple, showing that gay behavior wasn’t just a “phase” one passed through as a young adult, but was a lifestyle that could sustain couples through the years. Unfortunately, Hot L Baltimore lasted only 13 episodes, and copies of it are rare.
Linda Ray Guettner (Gena Rowlands) and Barbara Moreland (Jane Alexander), A Question of Love: This wasn’t the first TV movie to discuss gay or lesbian issues, but it was a milestone in 1978 due to its star power, featuring two of film’s greatest actresses as lovers. The true, intelligently-written drama explored objectively both sides of the issue of whether a lesbian mother was fit to have custody, exposing the battles that LGBT individuals faced in getting a fair hearing in court—or society—at the time.
The Soaps Homosexuals, specifically, Dr. Lynn Carson (Donna Pescow), All My Children; Hank Elliot (Brian Starcher), As the World Turns; Bianca Montgomery (most recently, Eden Riegel and Christina Bennet Lind), All My Children; and Luke Snyder (most notably, Van Hansis), As the World Turns: Carson and Elliot hold the honors of being the first lesbian and gay man to appear as regular characters on a soap opera. Montgomery married her girlfriend Reese Williams in 2009, although the marriage didn’t last. Snyder helped explore what it was like to be a gay teen, but set daytime history as part of soaps’ first LGBT “supercouple” when he hooked up with boyfriend Noah (Jake Silberman).
The significance of all gay and lesbian characters on soaps, of which these four are only a fraction, is that they introduced to Middle America and housewives of all ages characters who were both likeable and homosexual. Some farmer’s wife on the plains of Wyoming might have never met anyone like Hank Elliot, but she grew to understand what it was like to be gay or lesbian because of characters like him.
The Teens, specifically, Rick Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), My So-Called Life; Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith), Dawson’s Creek; Marco del Rossi (Adamo Ruggiero), DeGrassi: The Next Generation; and Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell), Pretty Little Liars: Statistically, younger generations are more accepting of LGBT people and their fight for equal rights, in large part due to being exposed as teens to television peers who were LGBT. As interesting and sympathetic characters, gay teens on shows aimed at young adults allow viewers to have a little more compassion for the gay kid at school, a trait they have carried into the workplace.
Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The character of Willow appears on most “best” and “favorite” LGBT character lists, understandably. Although sudden change-of-orientation storylines are usually irksome, Willow was a character who was able to show how such a change in orientation can occur, an awakening, one of many Willow experienced. Fans loved Willow’s relationship with boyfriend Oz (Seth Green), but grew to love her relationship with fellow witch and girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) more. Tara’s sudden murder in 2002 outraged fans. More than anything, Willow showed the world the power that two women could generate together.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.