Beyond Jodie Dallas: TV’s 10 Most Important LGBT Characters

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.

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.