Through the Ages: Gay on TV
While no means complete, this list pays homage to some of the more iconic and groundbreaking LGBT characters to have graced the small screen.
The first year that an openly gay character first appeared on the tube is generally credited as 1972. That year saw the premiere of "That Certain Summer," an ABC movie of the week in which Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook played a gay couple who were attempting to hide their relationship from Holbrook’s visiting teenaged son (Scott Jacoby). The film brought in impressive numbers, won awards, and opened doors. (It can now be viewed complete on YouTube.)
Also in ’72, ABC aired "The Corner Bar," a short lived, largely forgotten (only 16 episodes) sitcom which featured the late Vincent Schiavelli as Peter Panama, the first ongoing gay character on American television.
Throughout the 1970s, many primetime series featured gay characters in guest starring roles. In 1973, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" introduced viewers to the gay brother of Phyllis (Cloris Leachman). Around that time, an "All in the Family" episode let us know that "Meathead’s" (Rob Reiner) effeminate friend was straight, while Archie’s (Carroll O’Connor) macho beer drinking buddy was gay. A few years later, Maude (Bea Arthur), takes homophobic neighbor Arthur (Conrad Bain) to a neighborhood gay bar to show him that gays are just like everyone else.
But these interludes were few and far between. Until Ellen came out in 1997, it was nearly impossible to get a continuing gay character on the tube, though there were exceptions here and there.
Things have improved considerably over the years, though small screen gay characters can still raise eyebrows and incur the wrath of religious conservatives.
Here are a few of the best remembered, and most beloved, groundbreaking LGBT roles to have made it on the air.
Jodie Dallas (Soap)
Played by Billy Crystal
Before "The Golden Girls," writer Susan Harris created the controversial daytime drama spoof "Soap." On the very first episode in September 1977, Jodie’s mom (Cathryn Damon) tries to tell him that she thought his being a "homosexual" was a passing phase. But she couldn’t say the word, so Jodie would interject the H word into her sentences for her!
Over the course of the show’s four year run, Jodie considered having a sex change operation so he could marry his boyfriend (Bob Seagren). Jodie fathered a child, dated a lesbian, and did many other things, which horrified conservatives but kept "Soap" viewers laughing.
For being the first long running gay character on TV, and for never denying who he was, Jodie gets the number 1 spot.
Bianca Montgomery (All My Children)
Played by Eden Riegel, Christina Bennett Lind
Bianca wasn’t the first gay character to appear on a daytime drama. Prior to her coming out as a lesbian in 2000, the soaps "One Life to Live," "As the World Turns" and even "AMC" itself featured short-term gay characters. What makes Bianca stand out is her status as the first long running, soap character portrayed by a core contract player.
Bianca is the daughter of Erica Kane (soap superstar Susan Lucci), AMC’s long time leading lady. Once she came out, there was no stopping her: Bianca had numerous love affairs, and even kissed her girlfriends on camera. She married one girlfriend, then the two got divorced. A bitter custody battle followed.
In 2006, Bianca had a fling with Zoe (Jeffrey Carlson), a lesbian identified trans-woman. This particularly courageous storyline saw Bianca questioning her sexuality when she feels attracted to Zarf (also Carlson), a David Bowie-ish glam rock star.
Then Zarf comes out and transitions over the course of a six-month story arc.
Bianca broke ground in more ways than one. She was the first soap character whose love and sex lives were as active, and as complicated, as her heterosexual co-stars.
When ABC cancelled "All My Children" in 2011, Bianca was a happily married lesbian mom played by Christina Bennett Lind.
Two years later, the serial was revived by Prospect Park Productions. New episodes were made available on Hulu and iTunes, and were broadcast on OWN. To the delight of millions of fans, Eden Riegel, who played Bianca so brilliantly for a decade, returned to the role, and has just signed on for the revival’s second season.
Jack McFarland (Will and Grace)
Played by Sean Hayes
"Will and Grace" premiered on NBC in 1998, the year following Ellen’s historic coming out. Ostensibly a sitcom about a gay man and his straight, female best friend (Eric MacKormack, Debra Messing), it was the show’s colorful supporting cast that captivated viewers.
As the lovably ditzy, star struck Jack, Sean Hayes stole many scenes. An unapologetically gay, flamboyant queen, Jack was also a genuinely decent, if somewhat irresponsible chap.
Though closeted during the show’s production (he has since come out), Hayes played Jack with just the right combination of hysterical theatrics and down home charm.
All gays are not alike, as Jack showed TV viewers for the very first time.
Beverly LaSalle (All in the Family)
Played by Lori Shannon
Norman Lear’s brilliantly courageous sitcom "All in the Family" put many of society’s prejudices up on a pedestal and ridiculed them. Race, gender roles, religious intolerance, stereotypes of all kinds, nothing was sacred on this hysterically funny if thought provoking series.
One of the more startling, for it’s time, Family characters was Beverly LaSalle, a female impersonator who didn’t always switch to male attire when offstage.
Brilliantly played by real life drag artist Lori Shannon, Beverly was unlike anyone TV viewers had seen up to that time. Was Beverly transgender? Perhaps.
The third and final of Beverly’s "All in the Family" appearances came in 1977, when she was beaten to death on Christmas Eve. Gal pal Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) had quite a reaction to the news: She refused to go to Midnight Mass, saying that she couldn’t pray to a God that would allow such a thing to happen.
"All in the Family" wasn’t always funny, but it always made people think.
Luke and Noah (As the World Turns)
Played by Van Hansis (Luke) and Jake Silbermann (Noah)
A few years after Bianca came out, the traditionally conservative daytime drama "As the World Turns," which hadn’t changed much since its 1956 debut, outed young, cute, Luke Snyder. Luke’s portrayer, Jake Weary, quit the series immediately, and was replaced by Van Hansis, who was quite comfortable playing a gay role -- Hansis now plays another gay character on the web series Eastsiders.
What made Luke’s coming out so significant is the fact that he was the son of Lily and Holden, a supercouple from the show’s past. "ATWT"’s primary audience was older and somewhat right wing, and the series was particularly popular in the Midwest.
For many viewers, Luke was their first exposure to an ongoing gay character. Reportedly, a number of Bible Belt grandmas wrote to Hansis, saying that they could now accept their gay grandchildren as a result of watching his portrayal of Luke.
Luke’s storylines included dealing with bullying. From 2007-2010, he was involved in a stormy but loving relationship with Noah (Jake Silbermann), and the two are credited as daytime’s first gay "supercouple." They became an audience favorite, even after shocking viewers by actually having sex! As "The World Turns"’ legendary, 54-year run ended in 2010, Luke and Noah broke up, but parted good friends.
An enterprising "World Turns" fan has archived every scene involving the Luke/Noah love story, where it can still be viewed on YouTube in five-minute segments.
Mrs. Madrigal (Tales of the City)
Played by Olympia Dukakis