Here at 25YLSite, we handle a lot of heavy lifting. Analysis, interpretation, in-depth discussion, introspective interviews…you name it; we’ve got it. “Favorites” takes a lighter approach to the material we usually cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites—whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever!—in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: Martin Hearn’s favorite defining LGBTQ moments in television.
The LGBTQ community has come a long way in terms of equality recently and we have more representation in television, movies, music, etc. While we still have a long way to go to achieving full equality around the world I thought I would take a look at some of the defining moments that have changed things and helped us to come this far.
First Kisses On Screen
Obviously there are far too many of them to list here but first gay kisses on screen are always super important. Whether it be the first same-sex kiss in a soap opera, daytime show, drama, sitcom, whatever!—every single one of them is a step towards normalizing seeing it on screen for various audiences. Interestingly lesbian kisses always happen on screen first in most countries and gay kisses can sometimes take years to follow them. For example, the first lesbian kiss on US screens came in 1991 with an episode of L.A Law, but it took another nine years for an on-screen kiss between two men in Dawson’s Creek.
Time differences and biases aside, these first on-screen kisses paved the way for shows like Modern Family, Glee, Will & Grace, etc. to have real LGBTQ relationships on screen.
Here in the UK people still write complaints whenever a same-sex kiss happens on screen, mostly in soap operas, which proves that despite them being normalized we still have some way to go. In 1989 the UK soap Eastenders aired the first mouth to mouth homosexual kiss, which was actually met with outrage and a debate in Parliament. Newspapers branded the show “EastBenders” and even described the scene as “a homosexual love scene between yuppie poofs…when millions of children are watching”. Parliament debated whether it was appropriate to have gay men in a family show especially when AIDS was so prevalent around the country.
It’s reactions like this that show just how important it is for the LGBTQ community to be represented on screen and for kisses to be shown as normal. Despite the small bursts of outrage today, its nothing compared to how it once was, and we have the first kisses to thank for this.
Friends Has A Lesbian Wedding
For a long time, homosexual characters were only used in sitcoms as someone to be made fun of, with them often appearing as stereotypes. While this is still partly true when it comes to Friends, the show was actually pushing boundaries by inviting us to one of the first same-sex weddings to be seen on TV.
(The first gay wedding accolade sadly goes to Roseanne who had aired an episode just five weeks prior to this one.)
People were expecting a huge backlash for this episode but it really didn’t happen, which was a huge achievement at the time. In fact, only two networks refused to broadcast the episode. It doesn’t mean that the episode wasn’t problem free though as one of the most important parts of a wedding was missing: the kiss.
I can sort of understand the reasons why you wouldn’t include the kiss as I imagine the backlash would have been a lot bigger had the scene contained one. But if you’re going to push boundaries and have a huge event like this why not go all out and put the kiss in there? But with over 31 million people watching a positive message was already reaching so many people: gay relationships were normal and we should be allowed to get married too.
More on same-sex TV weddings later…
Queer Eye For The Straight Guy Is Broadcast
Before Queer Eye was a huge Netflix show did you know that it actually started way back in 2003 and was called Queer Eye For the Straight Guy? It actually ran for 100 episodes for over five seasons and even won an Emmy.
At that time the only makeover style show we had on UK television was What Not To Wear, which was presented by the dreadful Trinny and Susannah. Looking back they really had no business presenting a show about fashion makeovers and it seemed that they wanted to go for a more controversial angle over decent presenting. I remember seeing countless people being reduced to tears over their harsh comments on their appearance, and them even going as far as pulling a woman’s underwear down out of the blue just because her panty line was showing. They were ghastly and we needed something different.
Enter the ‘Fab Five’ of Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley, and Jai Rodriguez on the cable network Bravo.
These weren’t characters in a sitcom, soap opera, or drama. They were real gay people who were presenting a reality show giving real advice to people and helping them. This show was teaching us about acceptance on both sides of the sexuality spectrum. Straight men who you would expect to be homophobic in some way were embracing these camp, flirty men with open arms and letting them into their lives. Not only was the show trying to change a straight person’s perception of the LGBTQ community, but it was also teaching the LGBTQ community to change our views on straight people. Despite the homophobia in society, there were good, accepting people in unexpected parts of every community.
Will & Grace Begins and Begins Again
Will and Grace will forever be one of my favorite comedy shows from my childhood. It was like an LGBT version of Friends, which I also loved of course, but Will and Grace had that added element for me. That pink spark. That thrill of watching something that seemed to be not only unafraid to be gay, but proud about it too. Not too many shows were around at that time that did this. This show was a front runner for taking away the taboos of homosexuality and forcing viewers to realize that it’s OK to be gay—better than OK: it’s fabulous!
I fell in love with Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen after only a few episodes, and I loved what each character brought to the show. Again this was unusual for the time, as a lot of shows had obvious lead characters. But not this one: all four of the main characters were just as strong and pivotal to the show’s development. Will showed the world that not all gay men are overly camp clichés. Grace was the best friend every gay man wanted. Jack, the Ying to Will’s Yang, was a gay cliché, but hilarious to watch. And then we have Karen. Karen was always my favorite in Will and Grace. Her opulent lifestyle often got slapstick in its decadence, and some of her one-liners had me crying with laughter.
Will and Grace was an important show for both the LGBT community and their straight counterpart. For the LGBT, it was a gayer version of Friends with inside jokes only we could understand. For the non-LGBT fans, it taught them that gay was OK and that friendships between LGBT and straight people are one of the most precious things you can have in adult life. Who doesn’t want a friendship as strong as Will and Grace’s? And when the show returned in 2017, eleven years had passed, and seeing that the group were still friends made fans hearts burst with love all over again. And this time the gang had a message.
The show hadn’t only returned to treat its fans to more of what we love, but it had a strong political voice that it wanted to be heard. The writers of the show were clearly not happy with the state of the country and used the show to tackle political issues in a way that was both humorous and hard-hitting. And of course Karen is a Trump supporter. How could she not be? She’s uber-rich, uber-white and uber-privileged. Just look at Rosario! That was a Trump joke waiting to happen.
Hayley Cropper Paves the Way for Trans Actors
I have to admit that during my youth my exposure to trans characters on TV wasn’t great and I had only ever seen them be used as the basis for cheap jokes. Then in 1998 Coronation Street introduced us to the character of Hayley Cropper, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh. She wasn’t introduced as transgendered; it was something we and the other characters found out later. Hayley was not only the first transgendered character in a UK soap opera, but she was also the first permanent transgendered character in the world of serialized drama.
Unsurprisingly the introduction of a trans character came with the expected backlash from outraged viewers claiming that they didn’t want this “bizarreness” brought into their on prime-time TV. This time, however, the backlash was also coming from Transgender Groups such as Press For Change. Not wanting to be defeated the story writers and actors began working with these groups in an attempt to portray a true trans story. It worked.
Julie won numerous awards for her role of Hayley. She became an outspoken activist for trans rights, and despite being a fictional character Hayley was voted one of the most important famous LGBT people in history by the official LGBT history website. Not only that but the character helped in changing UK laws. In 1999 her character was unable to marry the love of her life, Roy, due to her still being seen as a male in the eyes of the law. Shortly after this episode aired the government began working towards tabling the Gender Recognition Act, which would grant trans people full legal status in their acquired sex. Things were changing massively and not before time.
Trans actors were almost unheard of back then, so show bosses took the decision to cast a non-trans woman in the role. This was initially seen as a negative, but due to her dedication and sensitivity towards the role it eventually had a huge impact on LGBTQ representation. Years later other soaps would eventually cast trans actors in trans roles including Annie Wallace as Sally St. Claire in Hollyoaks and Riley Carter Millington as Kyle Slater in Eastenders.
RuPaul Wins an Emmy
RuPaul Charles is the Super Model of the world. One of the industries hardest working drag queens, RuPaul has changed not only the face but the essence of drag for years now. Endless talents ranging from acting, singing, presenting and directing, RuPaul has redefined the industry more than once. More recently, with the runaway success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, TV’s most fabulous reality TV show, Ru has pushed the art of drag into the front rooms of households all around the world.
Drag isn’t just an LGBT Friday night entertainment act anymore; it’s a recognized art. Ru has catapulted drag superstars into the limelight, setting them up for life long careers as idols to the viewers of the show. And the viewers aren’t just the LGBT community anymore; Drag Race is popular amongst a much wider audience. On top of this success, Ru also has a many other projects running at once, including his widely popular music career, his weekly podcast with best friend and Drag Race judge Michelle Visage, and most recently Ru has worked on creating the very first Drag Race UK, which is set to air later this year.
So recognition of RuPaul’s charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent has been long overdue amongst mainstream critics. And that’s why, when RuPaul was awarded the Emmy for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program in 2016, fans around the world wept with joy. Never before has a drag queen been awarded such high recognition, and if anyone deserves it, it’s RuPaul. The glamazonian has gone on to win this award in 2017 and 2018 and even snatched the Emmy title of Outstanding Reality Show Program in 2018 too.
Thanks to RuPaul, drag is now not something kept for the darkest corners of the gay clubs; it’s not only accepted, but loved by a massive audience. Considering how dark the world has become lately, particularly for America, RuPaul continues to light the way for everyone, not just the LGBT community. After all, to quote Ru himself, ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag’.
Ellen Comes Out Twice
Whether you like Ellen DeGeneres or not you can’t deny how huge it was when she came out not once, but twice in the 1990s. Not only did she come out publicly in real life, but her character Ellen Morgan came out in her sitcom Ellen too.
On April 14, 1997, Ellen appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay”. She then went on to appear on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss her coming out and the decision she had made to have her sitcom character come out too. I was 12 at the time and had already begun to have huge confusions over my own sexuality. I felt different and didn’t really know what to do about it. It would be a few years til I personally came out of the closet, but I remember at the time feeling so inspired, her coming out did have some sort of impact on me in coming to terms with my own sexuality.
The producers of Ellen wanted the show to follow the standard sitcom tropes of having storylines centered around dating and relationships. But Ellen didn’t want to play it straight so she entered a long and hard battle to get them to allow her character to come out of the closet. In an episode entitled “The Puppy Episode” she finally came out. Despite gay characters existing in shows and sitcoms for years before her, we had never had a coming out story on television. This was why it was such an important event; it was helping people to discover their voice and tell the world who they really were.
Obviously, something like was met with a furious backlash with people campaigning to have the episode dropped before it was aired, for sponsors to pull out of sponsoring the show, and even requesting it be moved from the prime-time slot and into a late slot instead. It didn’t work and the episode went out to 42 million viewers as well as going on to receive numerous awards including two Emmys. The backlash continued and Laura Dern, who played Ellen’s love interest, Susan, later admitted that she didn’t work for a year and a half simply because she had been involved in this groundbreaking storyline.
Backlash aside, it was still huge and it was still making a difference in people’s lives. Ellen went on to host The Ellen DeGeneres Show which is currently in its 16th season and has won a whopping 61 daytime Emmy awards. Oh, and did I mention she was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom? It’s a massive success story that possibly wouldn’t have happened had she not chosen to have her character come out. She’s an LGBTQ icon around the world and although the sitcom was canceled it undoubtedly paved the way for shows like Will & Grace, The L Word, and Ugly Betty to exist.
Her success story gave us hope that it was possible for gay people to be successful in life, to be happy, and to achieve everything we wanted to. Yes, we would face negativity and adversity in our lives but facing that would only make us more determined to be who we were meant to be. When asked why it was important for her to come out publicly, Ellen had a simple yet strong message in response. It’s something we all must remember when coming to terms with ourselves and others, “because it’s OK”.
Mr. Ratburn Gets Married
Arthur was a children’s cartoon that began airing on our screens way back in the late ’90s and I was actually surprised to recently find out it was still running. Not because it’s a bad show or anything, just because it’s been over 20 years since I watched it as a child. I found out it was still running after the internet exploded a few weeks ago over one of its recent episodes. But why would a harmless kid’s show like Arthur be causing such a stir?
Well, it’s 22nd Season opened with an episode in which it was revealed that Mr. Ratburn was gay and would be marrying his partner Patrick. You would think that with this being a children’s TV show and it being broadcast in the year 2019 that there would be zero controversies. Surely everyone is OK with this sort of thing by now right? Tell that to Alabama.
They decided to pull the episode to prevent it from being shown there as apparently it would “break parents trust in the network”. Sigh. Sebastian Gorka described the episode as a “War for our culture”. Anti-LGBTQ group ‘One Million Mums’ wrote to PBS asking for the episode to be pulled from the air as just because “some are choosing a lifestyle doesn’t make it morally correct” and “PBS should stick to entertaining and providing family-friendly-programming, instead of pushing an agenda”. I think you can probably imagine the things The Christian Post added to protests like these.
Fans of the show we’re happy (even delighted) with the episode. Children loved it. Yet it was adults who were so outraged with it and only wanted to see it as something negative. Something as momentous as this should be used by parents as a way to teach their children about diversity in the world. Not that they need it, as in my own personal experience I’ve found that young children are a lot more accepting and tolerant of LGBTQ, race, disability, etc. than a lot of adults are. Adults could actually learn a lot from children (and Arthur) when it comes to accepting others.
These were my favorite defining moments for the LGBTQ community on television, most of which were chosen because they have meant something or had a direct impact on me at some point in my life. There are so many more moments like these and it will no doubt differ from country to country so let me know yours. What moments had an impact on you?