In the 1972 TV movie, That Certain Summer, a son discovered his
divorced father was living with another man. The lead character
told the youth: "A lot of people think it [homosexuality] is
wrong. They say it's a sickness . . . If I had a choice, it's
not something I'd pick for myself."
That bit of dialogue came at the insistence of ABC censors,
according to the authors of Watching America: What Television
Tells Us About Our Lives. In the same era, episodes of the
medical drama Marcus Welby had storylines in which gay men were
portrayed as psychologically deviant. In one, a high school
teacher molested a 14-year-old boy.
TV's treatment of homosexuality moved from negative portrayals
to more sympathetic ones in the mid-1970s. But the next
evolution took two decades, culminating in Wednesday's edition
of Ellen (9 p.m. ABC), in which former bookstore owner Ellen
Morgan comes to the conclusion she's a lesbian.
The Puppy Episode, which carries a TV-14 parental guideline, is
the first time a lead character on network TV has made the
declaration, "I'm gay." And the fact that Ellen DeGeneres plays
the only gay primary character of a TV sitcom is considered
"It will also be the most realistic," said Alan Klein,
spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
"The fact that Ellen DeGeneres has come out of the closet will
help guarantee this character will not be overblown. It will
reflect accurately, we hope, the lives of lesbian and gay
The changes in the 1970s were attributed to lobbying by gays,
according to Watching America. "By 1976, gays had made a
transition from invisibility to saturation as popular sitcoms
like Alice and Barney Miller introduced recurring homosexual
characters," said authors S. Robert Lichter, Linda S. Lichter
and Stanley Rothman, who studied prime time series since the
But when groups like the Gay Media Task Force began to push to
eliminate negative stereotypes, TV portrayals often became of
misunderstood, harassed individuals. During a 1978 episode of
Family, for example, a high school teacher's career was
threatened by homophobes.
Even though portrayals have changed, no prime-time series has a
homosexual character as its lead. There are 28 characters on TV
that could be classified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender, according to a tally by the Gay and Lesbian
Alliance Against Defamation, which bills itself as the nation's
lesbian and gay news bureau and watchdog organization.
The current crop is comprised of characters who are secondary
in importance or incidental. In shows such as Mad About You and
Nash Bridges, the gay characters are relatives of the A-list
crowd. On The Larry Sanders Show and The Simpsons, they're
executive assistants at the office.
Ellen's Ellen Morgan is not the first gay sitcom lead, however.
In 1981, the premiere of NBC's Love, Sidney made indirect
reference to the sexual orientation of middle-aged commercial
artist Sidney Shorr (played by Tony Randall). In the story, his
years of solitude suddenly ended with the arrival of young
actress Lauri Morgan (played by Swoozie Kurtz) and her daughter.
But protests and threats of boycotts by the Coalition for
Better Television caused NBC to change the show. Sidney and
Lauri lived like brother and sister, and no mention was made
again of his homosexuality.
Prime time has depicted many two-dimensional gay characters
who've been ashamed of who they are, questioned their
orientation or were flamboyant stereotypes, Klein said. …