Who was the first queer character you saw on TV?
That's a heady question for many LGBT people because it probably coincided with a heavy weight being lifted off your shoulders; I'm not alone!
Over the past three decades or so, queer representation on TV has been minimal and mocking at best (as opposed to the early years of TV, when we were completely nonexistent). Much has improved since Billy Crystal broke the mold with his portrayal of a young gay man on the '70s sitcom Soap -- but there's a long way to go.
This was all addressed at Thursday's "LGBT: Above and Below the Line in Prime" event, sponsored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at its theatre in North Hollywood. Moderated by Bruce Vilanch -- wearing a red T-shirt that featured Fred Phelps holding two signs, "God Dates Fags" and "Everybody on the Dancefloor" -- the comedian opened the show with an announcement that he just had knee surgery after falling -- off a very tall man.
Panelist Candace Cayne
Following a rousing speech by GLAAD's Neil Giuliano, Vilanch introduced an enormous and impressive panel of TV talent, including Brothers & Sisters writer David Marshall Grant, DL Chronicles creators Quincy LeNear and Deondray Gossett, here! executive Meredith Kadlec, transgender actresses Candace Cayne and Alexandra Billings, lesbian actress Amanda Bearse, and Billy Crystal.
Crystal spoke about the public reaction to his role as Jodie Dallas, which garnered him jeers on the street and accusations from his family.
"I had a chance to do something special -- and it worked," Crystal said. "Some of it was awkward; the giggles and nervous laughter was very hard to take."
Bearse spoke about her journey from "Marcy Darcy," her straight character on Fox's Married … With Children to her coming-out (she gave a shout-out to The Advocate, her outlet for the public announcement) and her transition to director and subsequent work on Logo's Big Gay Sketch Show. Bearse said she didn't face homophobia on the Married set and that she moved on to directing of her own volition. She did acknowledge that casting agents weren't knocking on her door after she came out.
Cayne said she was a bit surprised at her success, noting that just a few years ago, "I was doing drag at Barracuda," the Chelsea bar. She did say that a little voice always told her she would rise to the next level.
LeNear and Gossett, partners in life and work, were living on the down low when they created their show, The DL Chronicles, which aired on the here! network last year. Said LeNear:"We thought, Can we be creators of The DL Chronicles and be on the DL?"
The evening was certainly not a bad way to spend a couple hours as well as an encouraging reminder that queer visibility on the small screen is increasing in positive ways -- not just on Showtime and HBO, but ABC and the other mainstream networks. A growing number of programs feature one or two queer characters seamlessly woven into the series.
Said Showtime executive Bob Greenblatt: "I don't know if they'll ever be another show with eight gay or lesbian characters [like Queer as Folk or The L Word], and I think that's OK."