According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, there were nine gay or lesbian characters on the broadcast networks last year, comprising 1.3 percent of the total number of regular characters. There were no bisexual or transgender characters.
The number of GLBT representations shoots up if you count cable, daytime, and reality programming, but still some GLBT advocates argue that it’s not enough. Of course, these same advocates don’t suggest where those characters should be added—a transsexual on Grey’s Anatomy, a lesbian on Smallville, a gay man on CSI: Miami? It is Miami, after all.
These advocates also seem to forget how far we’ve come in the representation of gays and lesbians on TV. There was a time when a GLBT individual was lucky to see anyone like him or herself on TV. They popped up occasionally, such as the wonderful Beverly LaSalle on All in the Family, but most often they were stereotyped characters whose sexuality was implied but not stated. Usually, this took the form of the limp-wristed, lisping queen with a melodramatic personality. Unrealistic stereotypes ruled: if the character was a cross-dresser on a drama, you could rest assured that by the end of the show, he would be revealed as the psychotic killer. If she was a butch female, by the end of the show, someone would have gussied her up in a pretty dress and bee-hive hairdo so she could land the man of her dreams.
Musing on this had me wondering how much farther we would be in representations of GLBT individuals on TV had series through the years been brave enough to feature regular gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered characters. But which shows? After all, featuring a gay man on Hawaii Five-O would have seriously altered the dynamics of this testosterone-driven crime drama. What’s more, some shows had characters that were “gay” without being gay; Uncle Arthur on Bewitched was the gayest straight man in the history of TV, while the female Ralph Monroe of Green Acres was the most lesbianic straight woman. Who could have possibly have been more flamboyant than Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women? And why feature a gay character on Batman when the entire show was practically an ode to man / boy love, with the one outside love interest of Batman being a drag queen (Catwoman)?
When TV did start featuring gay characters, the character usually had some conversion experience that turned them straight. Remember Steven Colby on Dynasty or Jodie Dallas on Soap? Groundbreaking characters in their queerdom, but all it took was some slutty bimbo with a trick pelvis to make them forget their penchant for doing the dirty deed with the same sex. It was as believable a transition as when soap opera characters send their five-year-old kids off to some magical Swiss boarding school to have them come back six months later as 20-year-olds with MBAs.
For lesbians, the dominant theme was “the big tease”: take a regular female character, drop a lesbian guest star into her life, and let her experiment with a same sex smooch. L. A. Law, Roseanne, and Picket Fences all featured a lesbian dalliance episode. However, in the case of Picket Fences, network sponsors raised a ruckus, so CBS blacked out the scene but kept the dialogue. Because what we imagine is going on in the dark certainly wouldn’t be more salacious than what they filmed for a family drama, would it?
So I’ve come up with a list of shows which could have easily featured a GLBT character. In fact, they most likely would have benefited from one.
I Love Lucy (1951 - 1957)
If ever someone needed a friend that was a tool-toting lesbian, it was Lucy Ricardo. Face it, when it came to getting Lucy out of the frequent jams she got herself into, Ethel was useless and usually made things worse. (Gal pal Mary Jane was equally useless in later series.) Got your head stuck in vase? Locked out on the roof? Need to steal John Wayne’s footprints? A gay gal would have all the answers. Sure, it would have robbed the series of a few “Luuuuucy! What have you done?” moments from Ricky, but would it be such a bad thing if Lucy got away with her hair-brained schemes every once and a while?
The Avengers buddies
The Avengers (1961 - 1969)
Although it was on for eight years, it was during the Emma Peel years (seasons four and five) that a gay pal for the heroine would have been best. I don’t know a man, gay or straight, who didn’t know Mrs. Peel-type; a martial arts expert and science genius with an MIA husband. Emma was so hip, so now, so “with-it” that it’s easy to picture her dishing with her West London queer friend about her crime-busting partner, the staid Mr. Steed.
The Streets of San Francisco (1972 - 1977) and Charmed (1998 - 2006)
This may seem like an odd coupling, a macho crime show and a supernatural witch series, but the shows are linked by the fact they are both set in San Francisco, one of the gayest cities in the world. So would it be so hard to believe that the characters of both shows would have to interact with gay people? Oh sure, they occasionally came across a gay or lesbian person (read: rarely), euphemistically referred to on Streets as a person who was “not a ladies’ man”. Considering that most gay men in America were home drooling over a young Michael Douglas on The Streets of San Francisco and many lesbians were drooling over at least one of the Halliwell sisters on Charmed, it would be fitting to introduce a gay or lesbian character on the shows. According to these shows, though, the gay-friendly Castro is free of serial killers and demons, so if you’re moving to San Francisco, that might be the neighborhood to move into.
Rhoda (1974 - 1978)
There have never been two bigger fag hags on TV than Rhoda and her plus-size sister, Brenda. Having a gay neighbor in their apartment building would have allowed these two women the chance to get out to the gay bars occasionally and kick up some dust. Considering what a dull (but macho) man Rhoda’s husband Joe turned out to be, she especially could have used the fun. And you know the women’s Jewish mother, Ida, would have adopted the gay guy as the fashion-smart daughter she never had.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976 - 1977)
If you’re under the age of 35, you probably don’t know this Norman Lear parody of soap operas. Mary and the small town of Fernwood were plagued with a multitude of problems: a serial flasher, mass murder, and waxy yellow floor build-up. In a series that dealt with everything from insanity to impotence, would a gay character have been such a stretch? Loretta Haggars, next-door neighbor and country-western singing star, was one step shy of being a drag queen anyway, so why not introduce a real drag queen onto the series? After all, Mary was a woman for whom weaving her way through the complexities of cooking dinner were sometimes too much to handle, so series’ fans could easily imagine the befuddled and hilarious expressions star Louise Lasser would have had upon first meeting a cross-dressing neighbor.
The Love Boat (1977 - 1986)
It’s a cruise ship. Enough said.
Moonlighting’s Maddie Hayes’ thoughts seem to be elsewhere . . .
Moonlighting (1985 - 1989)
David Addison loved women, particularly Maddie Hayes. Imagine, though, if he had to compete with one for Maddie’s affections. A classy lipstick lesbian would have put a jolt into this series in the last few years when its sexual tension started to drag. Considering that Maddie’s portrayer, Cybill Shepard, now plays a lesbian on The L Word, we know she could pull it off, and just imagine the girl-on-girl jokes the wise-ass David would come up with.
Murphy Brown (1988 - 1998)
How wonderful it would have been if Lily Tomlin’s Kay Carter-Shepley had been an out and proud lesbian. In view of how politically incorrect Murphy was, it would have given her a new demographic to skewer, and it would have added a different dimension to Kay and Murphy’s frequent battles for authority. Plus, proper Jim and Southern beauty queen Corky wouldn’t know what to do with a lesbian in the mix.
There are probably other series that could fit onto this list, so feel free to imagine your own. Doris Roberts as a transgendered person on Remington Steele? The Bionic Woman with a hydraulic tongue? Agent 69 on Get Smart? Why not?
Of course, having a gay character doesn’t mean you have to feature gay sex. It’s not as if you ever saw Lucy and Ricky doing the humpty dance; hell, their two beds were barely even in the same room. Whatever the series and whatever the time, social standards dictate how much shows can get away with.
Which helps explain why there have been so few gay characters in television history. Social mores just wouldn’t have any of the homosexuality nonsense. In 1968, Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark caused a scandal by singing a song together and—gasp—touching during the middle of it. If Americans couldn’t handle a white woman touching the arm of a black man, then they certainly weren’t ready for Little Joe Cartwright looking longingly after some cowboy in chaps and an unbuttoned shirt.
Thus, we are left to imagine what could have been. Television through the years hasn’t had any problems with hiring gay men and women, just portraying them. Personally, I think television would have been a little more fun if it had.