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A Writer Just Archived Every LGBT Character on Television, Ever

Why I Constructed My Gay TV Opus

Why?

This is a question bloggers these days ask themselves more and more, when friends aren’t helpfully doing it for us.

You’re working on a post of the 100 most memorable Golden Girls guest spots of all time … why? You’re compiling your 150 favorite gay-porn stars ever … why? You’re shooting original videos of millennials offering what they know about icons like Gone With the Wind, Diana Ross, and George Michael … why?

My answer is always: Because it’s fun, because people will read it, and because when you have a blog, you can either aggregate or offer original content you hope others will aggregate. Long story short, it’s like creating art — you do it because.

But sometimes, it is better to have a solid reason why.

Even I was puzzled why I found myself in a months-long process to compile the most exhaustive online list of LGBTQ characters, storylines, and moments on U.S. prime-time TV, a post that would soar past 40,000 words and come to contain hundreds of names of actors who had played gay as well as many real-life gay people who had braved the airwaves to talk about the love that dare not televise its name. (I thought they were the ones with even trickier whys to tackle.)

I’d come up with the idea after stumbling upon a Wikipedia list that suggested the first gay reference of any kind of TV was a gay-panic joke on I Love Lucy in 1951. Earlier gags (if they existed at all, they were likely gags, not news breaks) may be unknowable since so much of early TV no longer exists, but thought a list similar to Wikipedia’s — with many more entries, organized strictly chronologically in order to tell a story — would engender clicks in a more fulfilling way than pictures of guys in underwear would. It felt like a way to document what was a decades-long process of slowly introducing the American public to LGBTQ topics and people in such a way as to engender “clicks” (of the channel) for TV stations while keeping tune-outs to a bare minimum.

Also, current social justice movements have presented us with the strange new pasttime of looking at recent history and judging how the people who came before handled complicated issues like race, sexual assault, and, yes, queerness. I felt a list that embraced LGBTQ representation in all its forms (the good, the bad, the you-sure-is-ugly) would perhaps provide a permanent, living record of the awkward queer-visibility movement on TV over time, allowing us to recall that some shows that were approaching the topic offensively may not have been doing so maliciously.

In gathering every reference I could find, it eventually seemed there could be a direct line drawn from early jokes about gender reveals to today’s vastly superior and more sophisticated trans storylines, and a direct line from I Love Lucy to Three’s Company to Ellen DeGeneres’s ratings-packed coming-out, and that those lines become clear when we trace queer moments from the McCarthy hearings through sitcoms like The Jeffersons to the shows that today are, in many ways, more socially advanced than feature films.

For LGBTQ people who aren’t political by nature, it’s nonetheless fascinating to learn bits of trivia related to our televised past, like that the first episode of a TV show devoted to the topic of homosexuality, an April 1954 episode of Confidential File, presented homosexuality as a social problem — and allowed a peek inside a gay bar. Or that arguably the first identifiably gay character shown on TV was Russell Paxton, a flamboyant photographer played by bisexual actor Carleton Carpenter, now 91, in a TV version of the musical Lady in the Dark. Or that TV’s first three-dimensional, sympathetic gay character was probably a black lesbian teen called Tommy, played by then-30-year-old Jonelle Allen, in the lurid TV movie Cage Without a Key (1975). In this way, “to be surprised” answers the why.

One thing that struck me as I compiled and fleshed out the list was that the process was not always a matter of the straight world narrating our existence, in spite of the obvious power structure in place. Queer people often played queer people, even if they were not, in real life, out. For example, gay actor Robert Drivas played a gay character on a 1972 episode of Hawaii Five-O before dying of AIDS in 1986. Real gay activist figures like Randy Wicker, Lance Loud, and Pedro Zamora stepped up to declare themselves gay in people’s living rooms. The late, distinguished actor James Daly was in the midst of a long run on Medical Center when guest star Paul Burke played a gay man outed by an anonymous letter-writer in an effort to derail his career, leading him to admit, “I am a homosexual.” Daly, the father of Wings star Tim Daly and legendary actress Tyne Daly, was himself gay and tortured by it, fearful of how if word got out his career would be over — this according to Tim, who said in 2016 that his dad came out to him two years before he died. What must filming that episode have been like for the elder Daly, a man desperately hoping he could be cured of being gay?

The list I compiled is loaded with such observations, made explicitly by me or that will suggest themselves to readers, who will undoubtedly continue chiming in with remembered moments of their own.

I think that is the best answer to the question of why people who blog — a dying form — or writers of any kind work feverishly on things that may not be the most lucrative endeavors. We want to know who and what came before in order to be entertained by the ingenuity, mortified by the missteps, and mindful of how best to proceed as the people we both are and aspire to be, engaging as many of our tribe as possible along the way.

MATTHEW RETTENMUND is the founder, editor, and author of the blog Boy Culture. Rettenmund has also written several books, including the 2005 novel Boy Culture, which was made into a film in 2007.

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