Primetime television has come a long way since 1972, when the ABC sitcom The Corner Bar became the first show on American television to feature a recurring gay character. Last night, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences hosted a panel to honor the many accomplishments of the LGBT community in primetime television since that time and discuss the many steps still needed for complete equality both on and off screen.
The event, “10 Years After The Prime Time Closet — A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV,” was moderated by author Stephan Tropiano, whose book chronicles LGBT characters in television history, but noted that so much had already changed since he first published the book a decade ago and why he had the idea for the event. The panel included Dan Bucatinsky (Scandal), Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black), Wilson Cruz (My So-Called Life), Paul Colichman (CEO, Here Media), Christy Dees (VP Development for Bravo), Andrew Rannells (Girls, The New Normal), Sherri Saum (The Fosters), and Amber Tamblyn (Two and a Half Men) all discussing their personal experiences and the strides already made in the LGBT community in television programming and beyond.
“There have been so many that have come before me,” Bucatinsky, who just won an Emmy for playing a gay journalist on Scandal, told EW. “I feel very honored and lucky to be in this position. I don’t think I imagined 20 years ago in a million years that I would be married for 21 years, two kids, play a gay character on TV and be recognized for it.”
Bucatinsky credits Ellen DeGeneres’ famous coming-out on her sitcom in 1997 as a big moment for the community moving forward. “The fact that after she came out, her show was canceled, it was huge that she did. But I remember very clearly what happened afterwards. She was not met with an enormous amount of hugs, and yet she did it anyway, and on her bravery we all have to thank her for that kind of paving the way that we are all continuing to push.”
Rannells — who will return for season 3 of HBO’s Girls in January as Elijah, Hannah’s gay ex-boyfriend and ex-roommate, and who played a gay man preparing to become a dad in The New Normal — told EW that he loved getting the opportunity to show different sides of a gay character. “It just shows that it’s not ‘a gay character.’ There isn’t one kind of gay character. There are lots of different kinds, so it was an exciting thing to be a part of.”
With shows like Glee and Modern Family, the general perception in Hollywood is that the LGBT community has already “won the battle” in television equality, but actor and GLAAD national spokesman Wilson Cruz insisted that more work still needs to be done. Although last year’s television season saw the highest percentage of LGBT characters on primetime, according to GLAAD’s annual Where We Are on TV report, the majority of those characters were gay white men, and this year’s report saw a slight decrease. “Sometimes the only LGBT person you know is on TV. Characters on TV must reflect our society,” Cruz said.
Laverne Cox, who plays a trans-woman in the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, added the importance of representing every letter in LGBT. “I think it’s important to know that trans folks exist in all fabrics of lives,” Cox told EW, also sharing her thoughts on Julianne Hough’s controversial Orange-inspired Halloween costume. “So many trans folks, when we transition, decide to live stealth and not live openly, so a lot of folks don’t realize that they might know someone who is trans. But trans folks are doctors and lawyers and nurses and teachers and best friends and lovers and wives and husbands. We exist in every fabric of society, and I think it’s important if we have LGBT or any representation on TV, they should reflect the diversity of our culture.”