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by Danny Bowes
June 7, 2012 10:31 AM
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The Five Most Influential LGBT Characters on TV

Ellen DeGeneres on "Ellen," Billy Crystal on "Soap," Katherine Moennig on "The L Word"
Television often seems to have a stronger impact than film on the way the public discusses social issues, something that has a lot to do with the way it's watched -- in your own home, in company you select yourself, when your guard is down and you therefore have a more intimate relationship with what you're watching. TV comes to you, it doesn't need to be sought out, and so its potential reach to a more varied audience is significant. And so it is that TV has been consistently several years ahead of mainstream theatrical films in terms of its portrayal of gay characters, even if those characters have been rendered largely chaste in demonstrations of their affection by Standards and Practices. In honor of June being Pride Month, here's a look at five small-screen characters who've been hugely influential in changing both the way LGBT people are portrayed and the national conversation.

Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal), "Soap," 1977-81

While he's not actually the first openly gay character to appear on network television, Jodie is often identified as such by virtue of having been the highest-profile to date. It didn't hurt that "Soap" is a wonderful show, and proof that a truly effective parody must, to a certain degree, be the thing parodied. The way in which Jodie kept on ending up in romantic relationships with women -- and was not allowed to have any kind of intimate contact with his male lover -- can be read as network timidity or as subversive, stereotype-defying comedy. In truth, it was a little of both, with the ABC censors' insistence that Jodie not be depicted as stereotypically gay out of fear of incurring the wrath of homophobes actually forcing the show's writers to portray him in a way that would humanize gay people to straight audiences. That may be "Soap"'s greatest joke of all.

Rickie (Wilson Cruz), "My So-Called Life," 1994-95

Unlike Jodie, who self-identified as gay but was involved largely with women, Rickie in "My So-Called Life" self-identified as bisexual but was never seemed to be interested in girls in any way other than as friends. As a snapshot of a very specific time and a very specific experience of that time, "My So-Called Life" is without peer, and one of the things it captured most poignantly was the existential uncertainty of teen queer identity. In Rickie, queer teens could see themselves, and in a character who wasn't killed or made to suffer horribly by the writers. This was, sadly, progress, if extremely modest.

Ellen Morgan (Ellen DeGeneres), "Ellen," 1997-98

ABC sitcom "Ellen" began in 1994, but it wasn't until 1997 that hints were dropped that the protagonist was a lesbian, following DeGeneres' own public declaration on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." While the show's notability consisted almost entirely of it being an instance of an out lesbian star playing an out lesbian character, it was nevertheless a very big deal, as was the fact that it is absolutely, categorically impossible to find Ellen DeGeneres threatening. This was enforced and reinforced a thousand times over once she began her daytime talk show, whose every episode marginally diminished the perceived otherness of homosexuality.

Shane McCutcheon (Katherine Moennig), "The L Word," 2004-09

If there's been a theme with any of the above characters, it's that they were all chaste to the point of monasticism. That is the exact opposite of Shane on "The L Word." She got laid. A lot. Unlike depictions of lesbians -- or, more frequently, "lesbians" -- in entertainment aimed primarily at men, there was an effort, and not an entirely disingenuous one, to aim "The L Word" at queer women themselves. While men (myself included, obviously) were able to enjoy the show, "The L Word" was a sincere (if melodramatic) attempt to portray gay women as they are, all human frailty included. Shane stood out among the principal cast as the most atypically feminine, though her lithe androgyny could hardly be described as conventionally butch. She was also the most aggressively sexual. Given that the show didn't judge her for this behavior, Shane became the show's most memorable character (at least in a positive sense; practically the entire audience, sadly, wanted to kill Mia Kirshner, who was done no favors at all by the show's writers, by the end of the first season).

Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), "Doctor Who," "Torchwood," 2005-present

Where queer women are all too often objects for male titillation, most depictions of queer men in film and TV are either tragic, comedic (i.e. the sassy best friend), or evilly swishy. Captain Jack Harkness, first of "Doctor Who" and then the spinoff "Torchwood," is a new breed entirely. Playing off the tradition of the dashing, devil-may-care man of action who beds every woman in sight, Jack's tastes are more expansive, bound not by gender or even planetary origin. Not since James Tiberius Kirk (one of the most ardently enthusiastic heterosexuals known to Western culture) has there been such a xenophile as Captain Jack Harkness. The best part is that no one ever makes a big deal about Jack's pansexuality; his horniness, perhaps, but no one worth knowing gives Jack a hard time about liking guys (or aliens). For all "Torchwood"'s love-it-or-hate-it divisiveness, it is at the very least a virtually unprecedented representation of a swaggering, lusty male hero whose only deviation from the archetype is that he lusts for and pursues men as well as women, and the show treats this in the kind of idealistic matter-of-factness that makes the "Doctor Who"-verse the truly special thing it is. Would that our world was such.

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22 Comments

  • Jodi | October 3, 2012 5:02 PMReply

    Sandra Bernhard as Nancy on "Roseanne" from '91-97.

  • Hermès | June 13, 2012 11:36 AMReply

    Noah, from Noah's Arc?

  • Carol | June 11, 2012 11:33 PMReply

    Without hesitation, for me, it's definitely Ellen DeGeneres.

  • cooralacid | June 10, 2012 4:45 PMReply

    When Captain Jack first appeared on Who and in the first two seasons of TW the take on GBLT charactors was refreashing in its approach as a non issue and one of the reasons I was drawn to both Captain Jack and Torchwood, which in he first two seasons focussed on a bi sexuality across several charactors.Sadly this changed in the last two seasons when stereotypical gay insults and humour were introduced and in many ways our dashing bi sexual hero seem to loose both his charm and uniqueness.

  • Karen | June 10, 2012 1:45 PMReply

    You also missed Van Hansis's Luke Snyder from As The World Turns. He was the 1st gay character that was from a core family & dealt with his coming out & he had the 1st gay kiss on daytime tv.

  • Mickie | June 9, 2012 9:53 PMReply

    There's quite a few moaning that Chris Colfer is missing who played Kurt in Glee. To be honest I can see why he was missed out. The massive difference between Kurt and Jack is a very simple one. Jack ISN'T the stereo typical gay/bi man where as Kurt was so blatantly gay it was hard to miss. There will always be the stereo typical gay me and women in life as well as media. But we do need to have a much broader representation out there, especially in the media, and as much as I loved Kurt he was just too much of a cliche!

  • Kat | June 9, 2012 12:41 PMReply

    Yes Alyson Hannigan's Willow Rosenberg from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" should definitely be included in this list.

  • Connor | June 9, 2012 10:51 AMReply

    I submit for review Willow Rosenberg, played by the inestimable Alyson Hannigan on the show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1997-2003). Predating Shane McCutcheon by 5 years, her character not only dealt supremely well with the identity confusion that discovering their own sexuality can create in a young person, but also was one of the first lesbians on TV portrayed as having an active and passionate sex life--not merely the "extremely close friends" vibe that lesbian couples were often given prior to Buffy's debut. Of course, she also was a rich and well-rounded character, the farthest thing from any one-dimensional or stereotypical portrayal.

  • NDW | June 9, 2012 10:29 AMReply

    I don't see how you could have left out Chris Colfer.

  • rtalive | June 8, 2012 4:57 AMReply

    i totaly agree with this guy :)) shane's character was realy the most memorable and influential from all the other characters on tha show who were a little stereotypical.
    she stood out as a portrayal of a woman who had other qualities than the general women are depicted with in tv shows.
    and Kate Moennig is such a talented acterss she can hook people wit hjust one smile.

  • How | June 7, 2012 7:21 PMReply

    Where's Chris Colfer? Selected as one of the most influential people in the world for his good reflection on teen LGBT community through Glee and other types of mass media.

  • Pat | June 7, 2012 6:08 PMReply

    You forgot Ianto Jones, Captain Jack's lover, played by the wonderful Gareth David-Lloyd.

  • DVCorvis | June 10, 2012 3:37 PM

    I say they did. I would even say as far as Torchwood is concern more of a hero than Captain Jack for reasons give that Torchwood in COE negated all the reasons that once set this show apart. Jack is no longer the "new breed". this article mentions; he, instead for all time is the tragic gay .
    The show also dd not treat this transformation kindly by trading its once held "idealistic matter-of-factness" for that of jokes and insults hurled at and at the expense of GLBT characters...less we forget Ianto becoming the "lying, takes it up the arse, bender boy, pervert, smells like a queer, and worth less than the family car ( yes I am talking about CHILDREN OF EARTH) and Jack is left to carry on lost love after tragic lost love...thus making Ianto the last truly innovative GLBT character of Torchwood.

  • deef | June 7, 2012 4:56 PMReply

    max on happy endings!

  • Gabi | June 7, 2012 4:04 PMReply

    i never realized Jack Harkness was interested in anything other than a woman, but that doesn't surprise me at all

  • kagi | June 7, 2012 9:35 PM

    doctor who you could see it it the first scene flirting with another soldier. later when they break into a building it's the same. More intense it's in Torchwood. He flirts with Ianto all the time, later they even have a relationship, had some hot kisses and the scene were they made out...he danced with him too. danced with another guy too. In season 3 we can see how broken he is, when Ianto dies in his arms. In season 4 you have one night stands with a guy and the scenes with his former male lover.

  • Arthur | June 7, 2012 5:12 PM

    Clearly you don't watch the show. He chases men just as frequently, if not more often, than he does women. Not to mention - most of his important relationships have been with men as well.

  • zboyniz | June 7, 2012 3:36 PMReply

    How on Earth do you leave out Chris Colfer?

  • Nikki | June 7, 2012 3:18 PMReply

    I agree with Brian Kinney! Where is he?!

  • WWBKD | June 7, 2012 3:14 PMReply

    why is brian kinney missing from this list?

  • Danny Bowes | June 7, 2012 1:24 PMReply

    If this list had been "most badass," Omar would have been #1. Indeed.

  • Lizzie | June 7, 2012 11:08 AMReply

    Omar Little, "The Wire"