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Is Your TV Set Gay?

From ‘Will & Grace’ to Willow on ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ TV is opening up to gay characters

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Did you happen to catch the Emmys on ABC last month? Did you happen to notice a certain — how to put it? — subtext to the evening, starting with host Garry Shandling’s crack about removing the two r’s from his first name? Did you notice that the most nominated comedy of the night — NBC’s Will & Grace, the one that ended up taking home the best-comedy prize, as well as best supporting actor and actress — happened to be a sitcom about a gay man? Or that Vanessa Redgrave happened to pick up a statue for playing an elderly lesbian in HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk 2? Or that the camera happened to catch another winner, Malcolm in the Middle director Todd Holland, kissing his boyfriend before bounding up to the podium?

Actually, you probably didn’t notice — and that happens to be the point.

Only five years ago — well before Ellen DeGeneres rocked the nation by outing herself on her own sitcom — any of the above Emmy moments might have been seen as something shocking. Might have even triggered a protest or boycott. Might have at least been startling enough to keep some of the Emmys’ 22 million viewers from nodding off as the ceremony stretched numbingly into its third hour.

But no, nobody cared. And that’s because today, in 2000 A.D. (After DeGeneres), gay characters are so common on television, so unexotic, that their sexual orientation has become all but invisible to most viewers. It is, in a sense, the ultimate sign of acceptance: Gays, like blacks and single moms before them, are now allowed to be every bit as boring (or smart or stupid or ruthless or whatever) as anybody else on TV.

”Here’s how far we’ve come in the last five years,” says Will & Grace‘s cocreator David Kohan, 36 (who happens to be straight), succinctly summing up the change on the airwaves. ”The question networks used to ask was whether their shows had too many episodes with gay plotlines in them. Today, they ask whether they have too many gay shows.”

The answer, apparently, is no. This year, as NBC rewards the two-year-old Will & Grace by moving it to its Must See Thursday-night lineup (at 9 p.m., replacing Frasier), Fox will be introducing Normal, Ohio, starring John Goodman as a gay dad. CBS, meanwhile, is working on two new gay-themed sitcoms — Kiss Me, Guido, based on the 1997 indie movie, and Say Uncle, a sort of gay update of Family Affair — as well as a series that will bring Ellen herself back to network TV. Expect more gay-themed shows on cable, too, from Showtime’s adaptation of the British gay comedy-drama Queer as Folk (see story on page 40) to HBO’s forthcoming versions of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the Matthew Shepard murder.

Add all this to the number of gay characters that appear in ongoing roles on TV series this season — 13 of them, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s most recent count — and you begin to see how much has changed. And changed not merely in quantity but in quality