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.
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).
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.