How Pedro, ‘Ellen,’ ‘Will & Grace’ and other gay TV icons helped pave the way for gay marriage

Senior Television Writer
06.26.15 36 Comments

NBC

Whether or not you agree with today's Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage(*), there can be no argument that this was a historic day in America.

(*) And as a reminder, this blog is not the place to debate the merits of that ruling.

In watching the news coverage of the decision, reading the official Court opinion and the four dissenting ones, it was hard not to think of the not insignificant role TV played in paving the way for this decision.

This was a case that wound its way through the courts, just as the wave of state-level cases did over the last few years, and it involved lawyers and activists and politicians and judges. But it also involved changing attitudes across the country about gay people and same-sex relationships, and that's where pop culture in general and TV in particular come into play.

TV shows come into our homes (and these days, also onto our phones). We form strange, one-sided, but nonetheless real relationships with the people on the other side of that screen. We see them week after week, month after month, year after year and, in some cases, decade after decade. We don't always agree with them, or like them, but we know them and understand them on some level, or else we'd be watching someone else.

That Bill Cosby (long before his alleged crimes became public) was appearing weekly in American living rooms in the mid-late '60s as Robert Culp's partner and equal on “I Spy” (and winning multiple Emmys in the process) wasn't driving anything in the Civil Rights movement, but the success of that show, and of the African-American sitcoms of the '70s that followed it,  made many white Americans who had no black acquaintances in real-life less conditioned to stop thinking of them as something other. (Similarly, many have argued that the popularity of “The Cosby Show” and its well-to-do black parents in some way got America prepared for the idea of a black president.)

But where a character of color is always going to appear as such, whether or not their race becomes a primary topic for stories about them, TV could much more easily conceal gay characters and performers – even seemingly obvious in hindsight ones like Liberace and Paul Lynde – and did for most of its first few decades. There would be anomalies both in the world of scripted television, like Billy Crystal's Jodie Dallas on the sitcom “Soap,” and documentary, like Lance Loud coming out to his parents during the groundbreaking PBS series “An American Family.” But for the most part, gay characters tended to be one-off comic relief, or buried under so much coded language about “confirmed bachelors” that anyone who didn't know what to look for would have missed them. In the early '80s TV movie “Love Sidney,” Tony Randall played an aging gay man who befriends a single mother and her daughter, but by the time it was turned into an ongoing series, even the movie's oblique references to his sexuality were all but abandoned.

Everything started to change in the '90s, even if no one back then could have envisioned a ruling like today's happening so soon after (or at all in their lifetimes). In the third season of “The Real World” – back when the MTV franchise was a genuine social experiment, rather than an excuse to show fame-hungry kids partying, hooking up, and prepping for their inevitable stint on all the spin-offs – one of the castmembers was an HIV-positive gay activist named Pedro Zamora, who got to educate both his roommates and the audience about a host of issues, and even wed his partner Sean Sasser in a commitment ceremony filmed for the show, a TV first. Zamora died only hours after the finale of that season aired.

And there was Ellen DeGeneres, whose ABC sitcom had existed in a near-constant state of retooling (including a title change from “These Friends of Mine” to “Ellen”), because it seemed to have no reason to exist save that the audience liked DeGeneres. Then she climbed out onto what was a very big limb back in 1997, by both coming out of the closet in her real life (with a Time cover proclaiming “Yep, I'm gay”) and in character on her show.  The star-studded episode where the fictional Ellen realized she was gay was the show's highest-rated ever, drawing a staggering 42 million viewers, but it also marked the beginning of the end of the series. ABC ordered one more season, but angered DeGeneres by putting a parental advisory warning in front of an episode that featured her character kissing her straight female best friend as a joke, and the post-outing episodes were criticized in some corners for being “too gay,” and in others for not being “gay enough.” When there's only one show with a prominent gay character, it creates a huge burden to be all things to all people, of all sexualities.

It was a burden that “Will & Grace” (which debuted a few months after Ellen ended) would feel, even as it was breaking ground by having two regular gay characters: one (Sean Hayes' Jack) flamboyant in the way most gay male TV characters, coded or otherwise, had been presented for years; the other (Eric McCormack's Will) more restrained, sensible, and in many ways written exactly how a traditional straight male sitcom lead would have been. The show drew some early criticism from both the right and left – the latter group complaining that Jack embodied too many negative gay stereotypes, and/or that (as happened with many gay male characters of the era, like Matt on “Melrose Place”) Will's love life was far chaster, occasionally to the point of non-existence, than a straight man's would be – but it soon became an enormous hit, and an even bigger step in the process of normalizing gay characters and relationships for an audience with little prior exposure to them.

“Will & Grace” exploded around the same time as the cable drama business, and suddenly there were multiple shows from different genres and with different tones featuring prominent same-sex characters and couples, from the ground-breaking HBO prison drama “Oz” to Showtime's “Queer as Folk” (adapted from a British series) and “The L World” to David and Keith on “Six Feet Under.” In the reality world, the Bravo makeover show “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy” was a phenomenon for a couple of years in the early '00s, not only featuring an all-gay panel of experts, but making their sense of taste something for their schlubby hetero subjects to aspire to. Even shows where it wasn't a primary subject matter frequently featured gay supporting characters, from hospital dramas like “ER” and “Grey's Anatomy” to sitcoms like “Happy Endings” to teen dramas (where another '90s series, “My So-Called Life,” was a groundbreaker with Wilson Cruz's Rickie).

Gay characters, and openly-gay performers, didn't suddenly take over television, but they were present in far greater numbers than ever before, in virtually every type of programming available. Those shows not only made straight viewers more familiar and comfortable with gay culture, but inspired many gay men and women in their audiences to come out to the world around them. DeGeneres' sitcom ended not long after she came out, but now she's a daytime talk institution – as beloved and safely middle of the road as Johnny Carson was in late night back in the day. “Modern Family,” whose first episode revolved around gay couple Mitch and Cam adopting a daughter, has been a huge hit across many demographics. Netflix's latest comedy, “Grace & Frankie,” has gay marriage baked into the premise, and older stars (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston) making clear that it's targeted to a demographic that well remembers the days when such a thing didn't even seem possible in their lifetimes.

And as the audience's exposure to gay people in their own lives and on TV has drastically increased, so has public opinion on subjects like same-sex marriage. Correlation doesn't always equal causation, but it's very hard to not connect the dots here.

Pedro Zamora went on “The Real World” to try to teach people about AIDS, HIV and simply being gay in America, but most of these people were primarily entertainers, not activists. DeGeneres didn't set out to affect public policy when she came out on her sitcom. She was looking to make her show better, and to start finally living her own truth. Similarly, many of these other shows weren't primarily interested in effecting social change, but simply looking for good stories to tell (and often new ones in an old medium often lacking for ideas that haven't been done to death).

Whatever their motivation, here we are. We live in very interesting times, and ones that would have been hard to fathom back in the days of “Soap,” or even the start of “Will & Grace.”

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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