TV Helps A Nation Come Out Of The Closet

President Obama’s newsmaking statement that he now favors gay marriage reflects how public opinion on the sensitive issue has evolved. And a lot of the credit has to go to TV, which has done more than its share in persuading Americans that gay men and woman are regular folk, not people you need to hide your kids from.

This week, the president of these United States goes on national TV and says that gay people ought to be able to marry –not that they should be tolerated or left alone or have full civil rights, but that they should be completely accepted by society, or, as Jon Stewart put it last night, “no longer relegated to the planning of weddings.”

How did we get to this point?


Over the years, the medium has more than done its part in persuading Americans that gay men and woman are regular folk. In fact, judging from the way they are usually portrayed and seen on TV, you would have to say they are better than regular folk — smart, personable, good looking and funny. Many of the characters may be based on a stereotype, but it’s a positive one. These are not people you need to hide your kids from.

Of course, TV’s lessons would have gone for naught if they were not reinforced by everyday life. Once gays began coming out in large numbers, perhaps encouraged by TV, you discovered that they are among friends and co-workers and even members of your family. How can you mistreat them or deny them equal rights if you know them and, in some cases, love them?

Not the bravest of institutions, TV was slow to embrace gays, so to speak.


But it began in the 1970s. In 1971, a brave Norman Lear devoted an episode of All in the Family to poor Archie Bunker’s confusion on learning that his son-in-law’s effeminate friend was not gay, but that his macho bar buddy was.

According to USA Today, the late Vincent Schiavelli’s portrayal in 1972 of set designer Peter Panama on ABC’s The Corner Bar was the first recurring gay character in primetime. But the sitcom ran for just 16 episodes so had little chance to make a mark on the America psyche.

In the 1970s, there were also made-for-TV movies that addressed homosexuality head-on in sympathetic ways, notably That Certain Summer with Hal Holbrook as a gay father.

Primetime TV took a big step forward with Hill Street Blues, the prototype for the modern TV drama. In 1986, Lindsay Crouse had a recurring role as police officer Kate McBride. After that, gay characters began appearing with increasing frequency in dramas and sitcoms.

They had prominent roles in L.A. Law, thirtysomething, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey’s Anatomy, Gossip Girls, The Good Wife, Ellen, Friends, Spin City, Will & Grace, The Office and 30 Rock. And this is just a sampling from the broadcast side of the ledger.

Ugly Betty, my favorite from the 2006-07 season, featured not only gays, but a male-to-female transsexual in prominent supporting roles. In 1986, the telenovela wouldn’t have gotten past ABC’s in-house censors. In 2007, it won a Peabody.

I miss Sal Romano, the closeted art director on AMC’s Mad Men. When he was fired from the agency in season three, he was struggling mightily with his repressed sexuality. I’m still rooting for you, Sal, wherever you are.

Today, we have Glee and Modern Family. The latter is a domestic sitcom with a gay couple with an adopted toddler. In a December 2011 interview, President Obama told People magazine Modern Family was his family’s “favorite show.” That was about as good a hint about where he was heading on gay marriage as anything I’ve heard.

Reality TV, too, has played a role. The genre as we know it really got started with MTV’s The Real World in 1992, and gays were part of the mix from the start. Like all good cast members, they added plenty of drama, but they also served as a means for addressing anti-gay prejudices.

When CBS got into the reality game with Survivor in 2000, it cast a gay man for the first cycle, and Richard Hatch went on to win the $1 million. Now, an ensemble reality show without a gay man or woman is the exception rather than the rule.

In fact, there are so many gays in primetime today that it’s kind of no big deal anymore, although I suspect ever vigilant gay-rights groups would say that they are still underrepresented. And they probably are.

Open discussion of homosexuality on Oprah and countless other talk shows also made it easier to be gay in America. It’s interesting to note that the talk show that’s probably the best advertisement for gays hardly ever brings the subject up. And who wouldn’t want Ellen DeGeneris to drop by the church picnic? (OK, I guess maybe the Westboro Baptist Church might turn her away.)

The small majority (or large minority) in this country who still oppose gay marriage, no doubt believe that what they see on TV about gays is part of a huge conspiracy of the liberal elites in Hollywood and New York.

They are liberal elites, but I don’t think it takes a conspiracy. As NBC’s Smash reminds us each week, gays are well represented in show biz. In many cases, TV writers and producers are simply telling their own stories, making their own cases for acceptance.

A lot goes into changing the attitudes of a culture – advocacy groups, civic leaders and journalists. But much comes from the arts.

When Vice President Biden last week explained on Face the Nation how he became “absolutely comfortable” about gay marriage, he didn’t cite a policy paper or documentary or news story about the victims of gay discrimination. He talked about a sitcom: “I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”

In the past, the cultural change agent was the popular novel: Oliver Twist (poverty), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (slavery), The Jungle (poverty and business corruption), The Grapes of Wrath (social justice) and To Kill a Mockingbird (racism).

At some point in last century, film surpassed the novel in filling this role in society, then, in the 1980s or 1990s, TV took over. And when it started accepting gays, so did the nation, or at least enough of it that it was finally OK for the president to say it’s really OK.

Job well done, TV.

Comments (12)

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Gregg Palermo says:

May 11, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Obama SAID it, but he stopped short of DOING anything about it. He say he still leaves it up to the states and declined to urge that gay marriage be part of the Democrat’s national platform. So it’s just lip service. Not brave at all, except that he’s no longer “evolving” his opinion, which is great euphemism for flip-flopping. Yes, he has the right to change his mind and I’m glad he did, but it’s not fair for Romney’s opponents to criticize Mitt for being an etch-a-sketch. Barack is just as malleable as the next guy.

    Debra winans says:

    May 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    We get it. You’re a Republican. I am not an Obama supporter, but the list of things that Mitt has flip-flopped on is endless. Not a fair comparison.

    Eric Koepele says:

    May 11, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Not brave? To potentially hurt his chances at winning delegates in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and several other key swing states that have constitutional amendments banning same-sex unions that passed by significant majorities in referendums? Not brave? To potentially harm his standing among conservative or moderate Hispanics who largely oppose gay marriage? Obama said in one of his books that he believed that social change cannot be forced on a populace before it is ready. He clearly feels the populace is growing more ready. This is not a flip flop. This is Obama doing what he feels is the right thing. Romney publicly declared he supported gay rights when he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts. Then he declared he opposes them after he left the Governor’s mansion in that state. This is one flip flop among many.

    Nicole Evatt says:

    May 11, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Well said.

David Siegler says:

May 11, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Politicians will say just about anything to get elected or re-elected or to differentiate themselves from an opponent. So Obama’s statement or Biden’s statement of Romney’s statement on gay marriage are merely rhetoric aimed at garnering voters. While I firmly believe that television has played a huge role in opening the dialog about gay marriage, I think the politicians are merely using the television show rating to determine what will generate the most popularity for them, not what they actually believe. Free television should be preserved for its contribution to society, not because a couple of snake oil salesmen with visions of power use it to sway the masses.

alicia farmer says:

May 11, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Marriage is a state function, not the federal government.

    David Siegler says:

    May 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    While I am neither pro or con to gay marriage, there is a problem with marriage being a “state function.” My wife and I were married in California. We have moved and lived in 5 states and all of those states recognized our California marrige as legal. If we were a gay married couple several of those same states would not have recognized our marriage…how do you solve that problem?

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

May 11, 2012 at 4:08 pm

I winced when Joe Biden referenced Will & Grace as an instrument for social change. Despite sharp writing and a great cast, I suspect that show and it’s reality contemporary “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” will someday be viewed as the “Amos & Andy” of their era. Many, maybe most of the shows Harry cites, treated their gay characters as novelties or with kid gloves (the “Very Special Episode” syndrome.) What’s REALLY encouraging is the emergence of fully-defined, complex TV characters who are not defined merely by being gay. One of the best examples is Michael Cudlitz’s John Cooper, a training officer on Southland. Similarly, it was game over for “Ellen” the sitcom soon after she and her character declared their sexual preference. But “Ellen” the talk show host is a fully-dimensional human being that people have grown to know and care about. Encouraging.

    Alison Pavitt says:

    May 11, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Well said. I hope to see more fully-defined, complex characters who happen to be gay on Television.

    Eric Koepele says:

    May 11, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    Stereotypical portrayals, yes, but Will & Grace encouraged a generation of gay children – yes, children – to feel more comfortable with themselves and to come out at younger ages to their parents, who could then help them through adolescences that otherwise would have been desperately lonely. Yes, some children came out to families that then kicked them out of the house due to rigid fear of homosexuality. But on balance, Will & Grace provided programming that kids who were different could watch without stigma and gain comfort from. Bravo. Thanks for giving the TV industry its due, Harry.

Jim Richter says:

May 11, 2012 at 4:58 pm

let’s revisit history a bit. ERA never passed as an amendment to The Constitution because it was not ratified by two thirds of The States. The process still stands. Therefore, The President would look foolish trying to push a “Federal” version

Ellen Samrock says:

May 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm

I think it’s less a case of progressive TV shows prompting Obama to “come out of the closet” in support of gay marriage as it is the Hollywood community he is so vigorously courting for donations that is motivating him to do so. Plus he knows that Romney, with his Mormon faith, will never publicly support same-sex marriage. Of course, the downside of this support, is losing the Southern vote, both black and white. But I’m sure Obama and his campaign handlers have considered this a risk worth taking.