Beyond Jodie Dallas

TV's 10 Most Important LGBT Characters

by Michael Abernethy

4 October 2011

Will and Grace 

It Keeps Getting Better (Most of the Time)

Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), ER: OK, she could be a real bitch. Yet, she also showed that sexual identity and job competence weren’t correlated, rising to the level of Chief of Staff at one of Chicago’s most hectic hospitals. There have been more sympathetic lesbians on TV, but none who showed the ability to excel in a professional life like Weaver. Of course, she had drama and trauma on the home-front, like every other ER character, which just goes to show how LGBT people deal with the same stuff at home as straights. 

Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), Will and Grace: Arguably, the two supporting characters of Will and Grace, Jack and Karen (Megan Mullally), were the most comedic, with dialogue and situations that were outrageous. Still, it was the dichotomy of Will’s serious, professional persona and Jack’s vapid, “thinks with his genitals” approach to life that made the duo important. Although each had his comedic quirks, as is to be expected in a sitcom, Will and Jack showed the extremes of the gay spectrum, reinforcing that being gay wasn’t a “seen one, seen them all” situation.

Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams), The Wire: Omar was hardly the first black gay character on a series, but he was the first to engross viewers through his life as a gay man in the ‘hood. Although Omar didn’t represent the LGBT community proudly, being a thug and killer and all, he helped reinforce that an LGBT lifestyle wasn’t a choice. Omar was gay, unashamed to say so, and he helped break stereotypes about what it meant to be gay—most notably, that gay love could be deep and life-affecting.

Carmelita Rainer (Candis Cayne), Dirty Sexy Money: Typically, trans persons on TV have been played as either asexual persons, whose sexual side is not explored; sexual freaks, with a full host of fetishes and obsessions; or psychopathic serial killers, whose wigs will invariably be yanked off in the final moments of struggle with law enforcement. Carmelita was a trans character who was sensual, sexual, and intelligent. The series presented her as a woman to be desired, but smart enough to not be used.  The fact that the role was played by a trans actor made it that much more sweet.

Alas, though, TV has made its share of LGBT missteps, among them:

Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal), Soap: Jodie frequently appears on those “best of” lists, simply because he was the first prominent gay character on TV. What’s forgotten is that gay activists protested the character when the show aired, arguing that he was too stereotypical and too confused whether he was gay or transsexual. While Jodie had a boyfriend towards the beginning of the show and consistently maintained he was gay, he actually had more relationships with women than men. This idea that homosexuality is a light switch that can be turned off when a hot babe comes along undermines the true nature of homosexuality.

For a Day Lesbians, including Kimberly Brock (Holly Marie Combs), Picket Fences; Ling Woo (Lucy Liu), Ally McBeal; Rebecca Logan (Dilshad Vadsaria), Greeks; Xena and Gabrielle (Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor), Xena: Warrior Princess; to name a few of dozens: Xena and Gabrielle tantalized its large lesbian fan base for years with teasers, creating reasons why the two should kiss, but never allowing the passion in those kisses to develop to anything more. More typical on TV is the straight women who has an “experiment”—for an episode or a small story arc. Rare is the character whose “experiment” turns into something for which the lesbian community can cheer (see Willow Rosenberg above).

Vern Limoso (Alec Mapa), Some of My Best Friends: Actually, none of this Jason Bateman vehicle, based on Tony Vitale’s 1997 film Kiss Me, Guido, should have ever made the air, but worst of all was the character of Vern. He was annoying, irritating, non-funny, and worst of all, a huge reinforcement of an unflattering stereotype of the man-hungry queen. This was a surprisingly sad character from writer Marc Cherry, who went on to create more compelling LGBT stories on Desperate Housewives.

Kevin and Toby (Charlie David and Gregory Michael), Dante’s Cove: Two hot men, madly in love, move to a new town and turn into the—well, not town sluts, because everyone in Dante’s Cove is a slut. Let’s just say that their libidos kick into overdrive. Considering the number of deadly, supernatural occurrences going on, it seems the top priority would be getting the hell out of town. Granted, living the fantasy of being in sex paradise has its appeal, but eventually, self-preservation should trump libido.

Black LGBT characters: Outside of Logo’s brief series Noah’s Arc, few series have explored what it means to be black and LGBT (see Omar Little, above). There have been plenty of black LGBT characters, many of whom have been compelling, but the majority live in predominantly white worlds. Particularly egregious are shows aimed at LGBT audiences, such as Queer as Folk and Exes and Ohs, that ignore the particular problems faced by this portion of our community. Even Noah’s Arc disappointed, being more 90210 than Do the Right Thing.

Of course, no list can be complete, and every list faulted for inclusions and omissions. C. J. (Amanda Donohoe) on L. A. Law, Waylon Smithers (voiced by Harry Shearer) on The Simpsons, Michael Pierson (Aiden Quinn) in the TV movie An Early Frost, and Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) in the Tales of the City series could all have been included, as well as numerous others. Similarly, Sabrina Southerlyn‘s (Elisabeth Rohm) sudden “surprise, I’m a lesbian” departure on Law and Order could be cited among TV’s worst. Good or bad, though, each LGBT character has helped expose a portion of society to what it means to be a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans person.

Cheers, Queers to Cyndi Lauper, always one of the LGBT community’s biggest friends. She doesn’t just talk it, she lives her support. Now, Lauper has teamed with the West End Intergenerational Residence to open True Colors, New York State’s first shelter for homeless LGBT youth. Each resident gets his or her own studio apartment. The residence has also job assistance, and residents will pay rent on their apartments based on ability. According to Lauper in an open letter, 40 percent of New York’s homeless youth identify as LGBT, so let’s hope this is the first of many badly needed centers.

Here’s Mud in Your Eye to Brian Camenker of MassResistance, a group which has taken a “pro-bullying” stance. Camenker is among those leading the charge of ultra-right wingers who oppose anti-bullying in schools legislation, claiming that such legislation supports the homosexual agenda in “taking over schools”. What Camenker and his ilk fail to grasp is that anti-bullying bills protect straight kids—his kids, for instance—as well as LGBT kids from malicious attacks. One of Camenker’s main arguments is that “It DOESN’T Get Better”… especially if he’s your neighbor.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media