From All in the Family to Pose and Special, Celebrate TV's LGBTQ History

Over the last 40+ years, things on the small screen sure have changed

By Chris Harnick Jun 03, 2019 12:00 PMTags
LGBT TVNetflix, FX, Getty Images

We've come a long way, babies. In the years since All in the Family introduced the first gay character in primetime TV, there's now Pose, an acclaimed FX drama featuring the most transgender series regulars ever.

As we kick off Pride Month 2019, it's time to look back at how far TV has come since the days of Soap and That Certain Summer. With more content platforms than ever, like streaming platforms Netflix and Hulu, representation on screen will only increase. Take Ryan O'Connell's Netflix series Special. The new acclaimed comedy, created by and starring O'Connell, is semi-autobiographical and follows a gay man with cerebral palsy. You wouldn't see that on network TV in the 1970s and you'd be hard pressed to find it on a major network now, in 2019.

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"When we first went out with Special, my agents said they were gonna go to network and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? The gay CP version on ABC?! They'll f--king buy it ‘cause it's chic, and then they'll be like, "What did we just buy"' And then they'll kill it.' Things that I get excited about exploring — the sexuality of a disabled person and their wants and needs — you can't do that on a f--king network," O'Connell told Vulture.

"I'm so happy and blessed because I feel like the stories of marginalized people get told on Verizon f--king go90 or Awesomeness TV. I was really nervous that Special was gonna air on an abandoned oil rig in Marina del Rey and you were gonna need a DNA sample to get access to it. I wanna reach as many people as possible because if this show had come out when I was a teenager, it would've saved my f--king life. When you don't see yourself being reflected back at you, you're implicitly told that you don't matter. That your life does not matter, it's not worth being told, it's not worth being discussed. And that f--ks with you on such a deep level. By the way, you don't have to have cerebral palsy to relate to my story. Any gay guy who doesn't feel they fit the mold or that they're fit enough — which, spoiler alert, is all gay men — can relate. I know it sounds corny, but I really hope this story helps people. This business is so f--ked up and arduous, it's such hell, that I cannot imagine doing anything that's not worthwhile or meaningful. That's why I'm here. Not to sell a story about some girl with magical bangs to ABC," O'Connell continued.

Below, relive LGBTQ TV history. Be sure to watch E! News at 7 p.m. for more Pride Month celebrations.

1971: All in the Family

All in the Family made LGBT history when it introduced the first gay character in primetime in 1971, revealing that Archie Bunker's bar buddy Steve was gay. Later in the show's run, Archie found out Edith's cousin was a lesbian who left her estate to her partner.

1972: That Certain Summer

Martin Sheen, Hal Holbrook and Hope Lange starred in this notable ABC TV movie about a divorced father who has found love with a younger man and struggles with telling his teen son about his new life. The movie is noted for depicting homosexuality in a sympathetic—read: normal—light.

1973: An American Family

Already out to his family, Lance Loud made history when he came out to the nation of viewers of the "first reality show," the documentary that followed his family.

1975: Hot l Balitmore

The Norman Lear sitcom starring James Cromwell, Charlotte Rae and Conchata Ferrell had perhaps the first depiction of a gay couple on an American TV series.

1977: Soap

Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas, a series regular on the soap opera-skewering Soap. The character was divisive at the time—early plots had him wanting to become a woman, he dated several women—but ultimately he was primetime TV's first gay dad.

1978: Robin Tyler

Robin Tyler was the first out lesbian on US TV in a Showtime comedy special hosted by Phyllis Diller.

1989: thirtysomething

Recurring characters Russell (David Marshall Green) and Peter (Peter Frechette) are shown in bed together "the morning after." No kissing or touching was shown and the scene generated huge attention, as advertisers fled the series.

1991: Roc

One of Fox's first shows, Roc, was the first to have a gay wedding on TV. The sitcom starred Charles S. Dutton as Roc, a garbage collector from Baltimore. In a "very special episode," Roc finds out his uncle is gay and has a partner. The family throws a ceremony for the two at their home.

1991: L.A. Law

The legal drama L.A. Law featured the first romantic lesbian kiss—even if it was a ratings ploy—on primetime TV between Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) and C. J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe).

1992: One Life to Live

In 1992, the world met One Life to Live's Billy Douglas, played by a young Ryan Phillippe, the first gay teen character on daytime TV.

1992: Roseanne

No stranger to breaking down barriers, Roseanne featured one of the first openly lesbian characters on TV with Nancy Bartlett (Sandra Bernhard). The character recurred from season four until the end of the series.

1994: My So-Called Life

While One Life to Live had its first gay teen in 1992, primetime's first openly gay teen series regular character came to us in My So-Called Life's Enrique "Rickie" Vasquez, played by Wilson Cruz.

1994: The Real World: San Francisco

In 1994, viewers also met Pedro Zamora on The Real World: San Francisco. Pedro was openly gay and HIV-positive. His commitment ceremony to Sean Sasser was the first (real) same-sex commitment ceremony broadcast on national TV. Zamora died shortly after the finale of his Real World season.

1996: Friends

"The One With the Lesbian Wedding" episode of Friends is considered the first primetime TV episode to feature a lesbian wedding.

1997: Ellen

"The Puppy Episode" of Ellen featured Ellen Morgan (Ellen DeGeneres) coming out as gay, the same time the star came out on the cover of Time magazine, making Ellen the first show to feature an openly lesbian actress playing an openly lesbian character.

1997: Relativity

Another first for ABC! Lisa Edelstein's character, out-lesbian Rhonda, becomes the first character to have a passionate, open-mouth kiss with another woman on primetime TV.

1998: Will & Grace

Will & Grace, created by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, premiered Sept 21, 1998. Need we say more?

1999: Dawson's Creek

While lesbian kisses became a ratings ploy for shows, TV's first "romantic" gay kiss didn't happen until 1999 on The WB. Dawson's Creek character Jack (Kerr Smith) finally got some lip action from Ethan (Adam Kaufman).

2003: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

In 2003, reality TV was forever changed by the premiere of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The show helped redefine Bravo as a network and opened up the eyes of millions of viewers.

2004: The L-Word

Showtime's hit lesbian drama ran for six seasons, kicking off in January 2004.

2005: Romy and Michele: In the Beginning

Many people would like to forget about this TV movie prequel to the classic Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, but the panned flick (which starred Katherine Heigl!) that aired on ABC Family made history by feature Alexandra Billings of Transparent fame as the first openly transgender woman to play a transgender character on TV.

2007: As the World Turns

Men were kissing in primetime long before daytime finally got on board, but the soaps caught up in 2007 when As the World Turns featured the first-ever gay kiss between two male characters, Luke Snyder (Van Hansis) and Noah Mayer (Jake Silbermann).

2008: Rachel Maddow

The MSNBC anchor became the first openly gay anchor of a primetime program on a major news network.

2009: Glee

Glee, created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, premieres in May of 2009. The show would go on to break records—and stereotypes—during its six-season run.

2009: All My Children

The soap staged the first same-sex legal wedding in daytime TV history when Bianca Montgomery (Eden Riegel) and Reese Williams (Tamara Braun) tied the knot.

2012: The New Normal

The New Normal, starring Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells, Georgia King, Bebe Wood, NeNe Leakes, Jayson Blair and Ellen Barkin, lasted one season on NBC. Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler's sitcom followed a gay couple and their surrogate.

2014: Good Luck Charlie

The first same-sex couple was featured on a network targeted to kids in an episode of Good Luck Charlie on Disney.

2014: Laverne Cox

The Orange Is the New Black star became  the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an acting Emmy award.

2014: The Normal Heart

Ryan Murphy brought Larry Kramer's acclaimed play to screen with the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons in leading roles. It took home the Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie.

2014: Transparent

Amazon broke new ground with Transparent, its dramedy from Jill Soloway starring Jeffrey Tambor as a father who comes out as transgender. The show was met with rave reviews and will return for a second season.

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