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V 35 Issue 28

 
 
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
What were some milestones for queers on television? (Part 2)
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Despite growing pressure from conservatives following the proliferation of LGBT characters in the mid-1970s, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed no shortage of queer television milestones.

In 1981, ABC's popular Dynasty introduced Steven Carrington, the first openly bisexual regular character in a dramatic series. The network's daytime soap opera All My Children featured its first Gay storyline in 1983, when erstwhile heterosexual Devon McFadden declared her love for her Lesbian psychiatrist. Five years later, ABC presented the first recurring out Lesbian character in prime time - nurse Marilyn McGrath on the short-lived medical drama Heartbeat.

During these decades, television increasingly addressed issues of concern to the LGBT community. The 1985 made-for-TV movie An Early Frost offered one of the first portrayals of people with AIDS. MTV's The Real World also dealt with AIDS, featuring HIV-positive Pedro Zamora during its 1994 season. That same year saw the first televised Gay male wedding, on the CBS series Northern Exposure, set in a small Alaska town founded by a Lesbian couple. The first same-sex wedding between two women - with activist Candace Gingrich serving as the minister - came on Friends in 1996. NBC's TV movie Serving in Silence (1995) related the story of Lt. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who was ousted from the military after acknowledging that she was a Lesbian. But not until 2006 did The L Word introduce Moira/Max, the first female-to-male character to transition on the small screen, followed later that year by Zarf/Zoe's male-to-female transition on All My Children.

In a bid for increased visibility, LGBT people continued to appear on television talk shows, even as such programs shifted from the measured affairs hosted by David Susskind and Phil Donahue to shows in which hosts and audience members blatantly attacked the guests. The controversy over "trash TV" came to a head in March 1995, when Jonathan Schmitz killed Scott Amedure after Amedure revealed his crush on Schmitz on The Jenny Jones Show.

Over the years, expressions of same-sex affection between women were more accepted than those between men. In November 1989, the sitcom _thirtysomething_ lost more than $1 million in ad revenue when it showed two men in bed together, even though a preceding kiss was axed. In February 1991, C.J. Lamb and Abby Perkins, two attorneys on NBC's L.A. Law, shared the first Lesbian kiss on network TV. In 1994, over the objections of network executives, Roseanne kissed a Lesbian character played by Mariel Hemingway, and the following year on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the character Jadzia Dax kissed a woman who was the re-embodiment of her dead husband. A January 1997 episode of Relativity showed a passionate, close-up Lesbian lip-lock, and two years later, TV lawyer Ally McBeal shared a prolonged smooch with a female office rival. Fox's Melrose Place deleted a planned prime-time Gay male kiss due to boycott threats in 1994, leaving Jack and Ethan on WB Network's Dawson's Creek to break that barrier in 2000.

The late 1990s saw the first shows with prominent LGBT lead characters. On April 30, 1997 - after months of innuendo - Ellen DeGeneres had the most famous small-screen coming-out, in a star-studded episode of her ABC sitcom Ellen that attracted some 35 million viewers. But not long thereafter, her same-sex kiss on the show prompted a parental advisory warning, and the program's ratings dropped as it began to focus more on Gay issues. NBC's _Will and Grace_ also broke new ground, though some viewers were disappointed that the Gay male lead never had an ongoing romantic relationship.

The turn of the century witnessed the most visible queer personality on reality TV since Lance Loud, when self-proclaimed "fat naked fag" Richard Hatch - who later served time for evading taxes on his prize money - won the first season of Survivor in 2000. Reichen Lehmkuhl and Chip Arndt, the couple who triumphed in the fourth season of CBS's The Amazing Race (2003), proved to be more likable Gay role models. That year also saw the debut of Bravo's popular Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, featuring five Gay men giving fashion and lifestyle advice to style-challenged heterosexuals.

Cable television offered the most daring series featuring primarily queer casts, beginning with Showtime's Queer as Folk in 2000 and The L Word in 2004. In a reflection of growing LGBT economic clout, Canada's PrideVision (later renamed OutTV) became the world's first channel offering full-time programming for a queer audience in 1991. The U.S. cable channels Here! TV, Q Television Network, and MTV/Viacom's Logo followed suit, producing original programs such as Noah's Arc - described by The Economist as a takeoff on Sex and the City from an African-American Gay male perspective - and the supernatural Gay drama Dante's Cove.

The increased presence of LGBT people on TV over the past half century reflects the growing influence of both out queers in the entertainment industry and straight producers who grew up in an era of greater acceptance of sexual diversity. Nonetheless, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that during the 2006-2007 broadcast network television season, only 1.3 percent of regular characters on scripted, prime-time programs were Gay or Lesbian, and none were bisexual or transgender.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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