Led by a poignant anti-bullying arc on ''Glee,'' gay teens are finally having their stories told all over television. EW takes an in-depth look at how producers and networks are making up for years of on-air silence and providing inspiration for real-life you

When Rickie Vasquez came out to his family on a 1994 episode of My So-Called Life, he ended up bruised, bloodied, and living in an abandoned warehouse full of homeless teens, afraid to tell even his closest friends why his uncle had kicked him out of the house just before Christmas. He didn’t even utter the word ”gay” on screen until the season finale, which became the show’s final episode — and that was only to console a girl he’d rejected.

No wonder Rickie felt the need to keep his sexual orientation painfully tucked away — he was completely alone when it came to gay teens on television. He was the first on a prime-time network show, and he’d be the only one for another five lonely years. In fact, there would be just a handful more in the next 10 years. ”It was cathartic in some ways and painful in others,” says the man who played him, Wilson Cruz, now 37, whose real life inspired many of Rickie’s story lines. ”The biggest part was the acknowledgment of our existence and our pain, which we hadn’t seen at all on television before that.”

If only Rickie could see Glee‘s Kurt Hummel now. The breakout character (played by Chris Colfer) on TV’s most buzzed-about network show has won an Emmy nomination, a Golden Globe, and viewers’ hearts with an at times poignant, but often, well, gleeful depiction of a modern gay teen. It took Kurt only four episodes to say the words ”I’m gay” to his dad, to which his father shrugged and said, ”If that’s who you are, there’s nothing I can do about it. And I love you just as much.” He sealed it with a hug, and a new kind of gay hero was born: one who’s loved as much for his boa wearing as he is for fending off bullies and forming a touching stepbrotherly bond with his former crush.

Kurt, incidentally, spent his Christmas episode duetting on a wildly flirtatious version of ”Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with his new dreamy male idol, Blaine (Darren Criss). ”That was by far the gayest thing that has ever been on TV, period,” Colfer says. ”Forget AbFab, forget Beautiful People and Will & Grace.” The song became the most downloaded track off the Glee Christmas album — and ubiquitous on the radio during the holidays. ”I was proud of that,” Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy says. ”I think it pushed the envelope a bit.”

Unlike Rickie, Kurt and Blaine are far from alone in their boundary pushing this TV season. Gay characters have gone from one-time guest stars, whispered tragedies, and silly sidekicks to not just an accepted but an expected part of teen-centric television. The change reflects real teens’ lives: The percentage of schools with gay-straight alliance clubs is up from 25 percent in 2001 to 45 percent today, indicating the increasingly visible role that gay kids are playing in the high school landscape. With the average coming-out age now 16 (down from 19-23 in the ’80s), according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, it only makes sense for teens on TV to tackle the issue. ”With our millennial audience, it’s what they expect to see,” says ABC Family exec VP of programming Kate Juergens. ”Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was such a vestige of an older generation.”

Speaking of which, the trend reflects not only demographic shifts but also the social and political climate. It was telling that when Colfer took home a Golden Globe on Jan. 16 for his moving portrayal of a bullied teen, his tear-jerking acceptance speech ended with these words of encouragement to fans: ”To all the amazing kids who watch our show…who are constantly told ‘No’…by bullies at school that they can’t be who they are…well, screw that, kids.” Despite the uptick in gay characters like Kurt — and out teens in general — it’s a message that’s still sorely needed in a world that doesn’t always reflect the same kind of happy-ending acceptance TV is almost obliged to depict. Nine out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students have been harassed because of their sexuality, according to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). And while Kurt is lucky to have supportive friends, there are many real teens out there feeling as if they have nowhere to go and no one to talk to — and the results have been devastating. A spate of teen suicides (at least six in September) linked to brutal bullying incidents prompted the U.S. Department of Education to draft anti-bullying guidelines for schools — and reinforced the need for empathetic portrayals of high schoolers on TV. The celebrity-studded It Gets Better campaign (in which everyone from Barack Obama to Kim Kardashian recorded video messages of hope and support) surely helped some struggling gay teens, but TV shows that form long-lasting relationships with their audiences can resonate even more. ”I think young gay people look at [Kurt and Blaine] both as role models,” says Murphy, ”and it means something to see their lives perhaps for the first time reflected on screen.”

Jason Galisatus, a 17-year-old student ambassador for GLSEN, would be the first to agree with Murphy. ”I think that Kurt will become a historical figure in LGBT history,” says Galisatus. ”My friends talk about the episode where he came out to his dad. We all talk about how amazing that is and how crazy it must be to live in a conservative, Midwestern community and be able to be open about your sexuality. That’s very inspiring to all of us, and we can say, ‘Well, hey, if Kurt can do it, why can’t we?’ Frequently, even if it is just a show, it does give us hope that coming out is not always a horrible thing to do.” And a little hope can often go a long way. The Trevor Project, which runs a toll-free suicide hotline for gay youth or those questioning their sexuality, has been receiving numerous calls from teens who have been moved to pick up the phone after watching relatable TV characters such as Kurt. ”There are conversations that happen with counselors that point to characters on TV,” says Trevor Project executive director Charles Robbins. ”Obviously, Glee is dealing with a very spot-on issue with Kurt’s character. Since September, our call volume has increased, and that coincides with the Glee story lines and all the news media coverage of gay bullying.”

But these story lines are not designed to speak solely to kids; the relationship between Kurt and his father can also serve as a lesson for parents. A 2009 study from the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University found that LGBT teens rejected by their families were eight times more likely to commit suicide, which makes series that feature accepting parents — and the consequences of peer rejection — all the more critical. ”It role-models to parents that the right answer is to love your kid,” says Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) president Jarrett Barrios. ”The greatest fears in coming out come from how your family and your peer group are going to respond. This increasing number of story lines makes it impossible to assume that there are no gay people around you. It makes it uncool to be a bully.”

Audiences are learning such lessons with greater frequency this season than any other in TV history. More than two dozen gay teens currently populate the airwaves on cable and network shows in regular and recurring roles, from The CW’s 90210 to Showtime’s Shameless, from MTV’s Skins to ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars. ”Just having an LGBT teen presence is a huge change over the last few years,” says JB Beeson, deputy executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. Notes Barrios, ”It’s important for [gay teens] to know they’re not alone, which is what it felt like 30 or 40 years ago.”

Teen-skewing networks are leading the way in showing even more facets of gay life. Both ABC Family and MTV have been cited at the top of GLAAD’s annual Network Responsibility Index. Glee, however, has taken the message to a mass-audience network on a top-rated show — while also giving viewers a character they love. ”I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t say at times we were wondering if this was where the audience wants to go,” Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly admits. ”But I’ve been really heartened to see that they love Kurt.”

Networks haven’t always been so willing to take such chances on young gay characters. The year of 1994 felt like a watershed: First MTV smashed barriers with the inclusion of 22-year-old gay man Pedro Zamora in the third season of its hit series The Real World; then Rickie’s plotline played out poignantly on My So-Called Life. ”It wasn’t even a problem with the network,” says My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman (who also included a gay teen character this past summer on ABC Family’s Huge). ”The thing I got the most pushback about was in the pilot, when he puts eyeliner on in the girls’ bathroom. I remember I mentioned The Crying Game, which had just come out, and Michael Jackson wearing eyeliner [to convince the network]. So they went with it.”

It looked like a sign of progress. But with My So-Called Life‘s cancellation after just one season, major networks weren’t exactly rushing to tackle teen drama in any way, much less address the plight of gay teens. Instead, grown-up shows tiptoed into prominent gay depictions in the late ’90s — with Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out episode on her sitcom Ellen in 1997, followed by the comic spin on adult gay life portrayed on Will & Grace starting in 1998 — and LGBT teens were left by the wayside.

There wouldn’t be another gay teen in prime time until 1999, as youth-targeted programming found a home on The WB and slowly began leading the way in telling coming-out stories that reflected the Will & Grace effect. On the network’s signature hit Dawson’s Creek, Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith), a football player and love interest of Joey Potter (Katie Holmes), came out, even kissing a guy on screen, beating Will & Grace to the first romantic male kiss ever on American network TV. It was an arc creator Kevin Williamson says the fledgling network cheered from the beginning, thanks to its sensitive handling. ”What I was proud of is I felt it was very emotional,” Williamson says. ”And everyone accepted him. In terms of changing the face of the television landscape, I feel like we did what we could in our own little way.”

The WB welcomed another gay character the following year with Alyson Hannigan’s Willow Rosenberg on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But once again, such trailblazing did not bear immediate fruit: Aside from a gay brother here or a ”confused” guest star there, major networks continued to keep their teen characters locked safely in closets. As Beeson says, ”It would always be one character on one episode and never be discussed again. Like one girl would decide she wanted to try a lesbian kiss or something.” The latter, in particular, has often done as much harm as good to the cause: ”The good part is that characters are showing sexual fluidity on TV,” Beeson says. ”But on the other hand, it kind of sensationalizes and demeans lesbian relationships. It makes them seem like just a phase.”

Fans of soapy Fox drama The O.C. will certainly recall Marissa Cooper’s (Mischa Barton) ”phase,” when in 2005 she traded in making angsty eyes at hunky Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) for making out with punky new girl Alex (Olivia Wilde). The arc ran a mere six episodes — something exec producer Stephanie Savage blames, in part, on a jittery network. ”We could’ve had more support in terms of making that a long-term story line,” says Savage, now an exec producer on Gossip Girl. ”There were definitely some questions about how long we were doing this story. And we did have to do some editing to make kisses shorter and pull back on some physicality of the characters.”

Savage is not the only producer to note past network resistance. While The WB received kudos for Dawson’s Creek and Buffy, Murphy says he had trouble selling even peripheral gay-themed story lines to the network for his cult favorite Popular (1999-2001), which included a character with a lesbian mom and an episode about gay bashing. ”I remember I did have trouble, and [the network] would say things like ‘Could you make it a little less gay?”’ Murphy says. ”Being that I was a gay person, I thought that was weird.”

Today’s wave of TV-industry acceptance began on the outskirts of teen-oriented cable — namely, on the relentlessly pioneering Degrassi, a Canadian drama that airs on TeenNick (formerly The N) in the States. Since 2003, Degrassi has been responsible for no less than eight prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual, or, yes, transgender characters in its ever-rotating cast. These days, football player Riley (Argiris Karras) is coming out, while Adam (played by Jordan Todosey, a 15-year-old girl) is struggling to explain to friends that he’s female-to-male transgender. ”This is something that comes with the times,” co-creator Linda Schuyler says. ”People are realizing that the lines of sexuality are not just drawn between gay guys and lesbian girls, but there is a sliding scale of sexuality, and that’s something new. We thought, ‘We gotta start portraying these characters.”’

With Degrassi leading the charge, times have certainly changed — in a way that seems to have more staying power than previous advances. Momentum has built to an unprecedented variety of three-dimensional characters over the past few years that is just beginning to reflect the many real faces of gay teenage America: some effeminate, some not; some closeted, some unapologetic; some accepted, some marginalized; and many with more going for them as characters than just their sexual orientation. Finally, gay teens are coming close to being depicted on screen with a diversity that can match heterosexuals of the same age.

Thanks to Glee and its 14.1 million viewers, gay teen characters are now reaching more eyes than ever, as Kurt’s run-in with bullying has dominated the first half of the musical’s second season. It’s also led to the addition of wildly popular mentor/love interest Blaine. ”They’re kind of like the Joanie and Chachi of our generation,” Colfer says. True enough, audiences are pulling for the couple just as they have for such iconically sweet teen pairings of the past. ”When we made the announcement that Kurt was getting a boyfriend, people went bats—, they were so excited,” Colfer adds. ”And then you add Darren, who is incredibly talented, and people are just jumping up and down.” For Criss, the real sign of progress is that the pairing has caused no controversy whatsoever. No protests. No outcry. No loss of corporate sponsors. (In fact, General Motors will be sponsoring Glee‘s post-Super Bowl extravaganza on Feb. 6.) Even their suggestive yuletide duet caused far less commotion than, say, some of their Glee costars posing provocatively (and heterosexually) in GQ magazine. ”It’s become less and less about the obvious frame of it, the young teen gay couple on the popular network show,” says Criss. ”It’s more about just a favorite character having a love interest, which is awesome.”

While the networks have come a long way recently, many in the industry feel there is still work to be done in portraying young gay characters and the often overlooked slights they face on a daily basis. ”Even if it’s not someone being antigay against a person,” GLAAD’s Barrios says, ”the language we use — ‘That’s so gay’ — is still hurtful.” And though gay characters have become a staple on dramas, particularly on teen networks, they’re entirely absent from mainstream sitcoms and tween networks like Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. When asked about its lack of gay teen characters, Disney Channel responded with the following statement: ”We recognize our responsibility to present age-appropriate programming for millions of kids age 6-14 around the world, and we aim to tell great stories with an array of relatable characters and themes that address the needs and aspirations of our young viewers, augment Disney Channel’s themes of communication and optimism, and fulfill our brand promise to encourage kids to ‘express yourself,’ ‘believe in yourself,’ and ‘celebrate your family.”’

Even on the dramas where gay teens are prominent, ”I’d like to see even more empowered characters,” the National Youth Advocacy Coalition’s Beeson says. ”It’s so often about characters struggling to come out or struggling with their identity. But there actually are young people who are out and have a lot going for them, instead of being bullied all the time or their parents not accepting them.” Adds Barrios, ”There are still barriers to be broken, like the barrier Degrassi broke with regard to the first trans teen. That shows us that even with all this progress, there are still plenty of new issues to be found in there.”

The good news: Young gay characters are on a momentous roll, after years of stops and starts. In fact, prime time’s original gay teen, Wilson Cruz, who works with GLSEN, believes we’re finally on track — if awfully slow in getting there. ”I think we’ve now reached the natural progression of what should’ve happened right after My So-Called Life,” he says. ”Do we have farther to go? Absolutely. But better late than never.”