Out and about: Gay characters, story lines are increasing on television

[5 November 2008]

By Chuck Barney

Contra Costa Times (MCT)

Berkeley resident Leesa Tori has no problem recalling, with vivid clarity, that television moment on April 30, 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres spoke into an airport public-address system and announced to all the world, “I’m gay.”

The coming-out scene on the ABC sitcom “Ellen” was a watershed event in television history and left Tori, a lesbian, beaming with pride.

“That was so incredibly important. It was just huge,” Tori says. “She was my hero.”

More than 10 years later, gay viewers - and anyone who values diversity in their pop-cultural fare - can take pride in the fact that gay characters on television are no longer such a big-deal novelty.

According to a recent study by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, broadcast television featured 16 gay and bisexual regular characters in prime-time shows at the start of the fall season. That’s more than double the seven of a year ago.

The depictions run the gamut, from a bisexual woman on “Bones” to a budding same-sex female romance on “Grey’s Anatomy” and a gay marriage on “Brothers & Sisters.”

In addition, 19 recurring characters (those who appear only time to time) on broadcast television are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Combine the regular and recurring characters and it’s the most GLAAD has counted during its 13 years of monitoring the networks.

Moreover, when consideration is given to reality shows, daytime dramas and gay-oriented cable networks, it becomes clear that never before have gay story lines been so prominent on television.

“Naturally, we want to see ourselves represented and have our stories told,” says GLAAD president Neil G. Giuliano. “But this (broadening representation) is also important because we know that images on TV and in the movies have a lot of power and influence. They can go a long way toward helping others embrace the LGBT community with love and acceptance.”

To that end, Giuliano is pleased to not only see more gay characters on the small screen, but more “fully developed” characters with “substantial depth” to them. In other words, characters who don’t serve simply as gimmicks or window dressing or the butt of jokes as many gay depictions have done in the past.

He points to the ABC family drama “Brothers & Sisters,” in which one of the main characters - Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys) - has participated in a same-sex wedding ceremony with Scotty Wandell, a character played by openly gay actor Luke Macfarlane. It is believed to be prime time’s first gay wedding involving series regulars.

On the same show, Kevin’s uncle, Saul Holden (Ron Rifkin), last season officially came out in his 60s, after acknowledging he had led a life filled with regret.

“That’s a very genuine situation - someone coming out late in life and dealing with all that entails,” Giuliano says. “It’s a great story to be told.”

ABC, which GLAAD credits as being the top broadcast network when it comes to LGBT inclusion, also is airing a fledgling romance between female doctors - Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) - on its No. 1-rated drama, “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“That’s another very wonderful and real story of women learning to understand their same-sex attraction,” says Giuliano. “And what’s also neat about that story is the reaction to the situation by the other doctors and their friends. They’re being educated as well, and in them is where most of the viewers can see themselves.”

The “Grey’s Anatomy” plot line is also an example of television’s willingness to reach out to the LGBT community. Before the season, series creator Shonda Rhimes met with representatives of GLAAD to discuss the characters and the direction they would take.

“What I love is we sat down and talked about women who figure out that they’re lesbians later in life and what that means,” Rhimes told reporters during television’s summer press tour. “And we really were able to find some really great, humorous and serious emotional stuff to play that’s going to feel really interesting and also affect their lives in the hospital.”

Some of the most interesting developments in gay-related television continue to occur in other genres and programming platforms. Reality TV, for example, has long been at the forefront when it comes to compelling LGBT personalities, including this season’s inclusion of Isis, a transgender contestant on “America’s Next Top Model” (The CW), and Lance Bass, a gay contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Meanwhile, on cable, which introduced such shows as “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word,” the Emmy-winning “Mad Men” (AMC) features a closeted gay man - Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) - living in denial among his skirt-chasing co-workers. And in daytime television, “All My Children” (ABC), which broke ground with the coming out of Erica Kane’s daughter Bianca (Eden Riegel), has seen the character return in a new story line, with a new girlfriend.

Joseph Chase, a longtime Concord, Calif., resident and employee at the city’s Rainbow Community Center, is encouraged by the progress he has seen.

“I like that we’re starting to see the diversity of the country reflected on television,” says Chase, 50. “And I like that we’re seeing more real people depicted sensitively and with integrity, and with warts and all.”

Chase says he is most impressed when television presents substantive coming-out stories pegged to characters being true to themselves.

“So many of us grow up as minorities within our own families,” he says. “It helps to see that you’re not a single oddity, but one of a bigger whole - and to discover that in a nonjudgmental way.”

But even with the progress made in recent years, Chase and others believe that television still has a lot of work to do when it comes to presenting well-rounded gay story lines and being generally inclusive. The recent GLAAD report noted that CBS didn’t have any shows this fall with regular characters who are gay (although the CBS daytime drama “As the World Turns” features a gay relationship). And since the days of “Ellen” and “Will & Grace,” there have been no scripted series actually built around gay characters.

Moreover, gay story lines continue to be mostly the dominion of white men.

“We need more people of color. That’s for sure,” says Giuliano, citing Callie on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin) on “Bones” and Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nunez) on “The Office” as being among the notable few.

Tori also finds fault with the way lesbian romance is often depicted on TV. “After a while, it gets kind of tiring to see the straight girl-being-converted story,” she says. “It feeds into the fear some have that there are people out there trying to lure you - that someone is going to make you gay. I want to know where the career lesbians are on TV.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/out-and-about-gay-characters-story-lines-are-increasing-on-television/