It’s strange to think in a world where gay marriage in the UK was only legalised last year, that the world of TV has been at the forefront of giving publicity to queer issues for decades. From having gay characters as leading protagonists, to same sex kisses, and pioneering coming out story lines, gay issues have been captivating viewing audiences for far longer than they have been on the political agenda.
US sitcom All in the Family was the first TV programme to have an openly homosexual character, expro football player Steve, all the way back in 1971, a decade before the AIDS epidemic in America catapulted LGBTQ issues into the mainstream.
It was also in the 70s, just six years later, that Billy Crystal would make his name in the world of showbiz by playing Jodie Dallas in Soap, amongst the first unambiguously homosexual characters on American primetime TV.
More famous than either of those cases was Ellen DeGeneres’ character coming out as a lesbian in the 1997 series of her eponymous sitcom. A time when art mirrored real life, DeGeneres herself had come out in an interview with Oprah Winfrey two months before the episode aired, and in the episode itself DeGeneres’ character came out to her therapist, also played by Winfrey.
EastEnders was the UK’s pioneering television programme for homosexual issues, when the first gay kiss on British television took place in 1989 between characters Colin and Guido. Of particular importance was the normality with which that kiss occurred; instead of taking place in the idyllic, picturesque set of a sitcom entirely divorced from reality, it was grounded in the gritty realism of Albert Square. 90s soap Brookside was another torchbearer, being the first programme to screen a lesbian kiss, significant because it was broadcast before the watershed.
In the more recent past, American comedy Will & Grace, though initially panned for what some claimed were stereotypical leading gay characters in Will and Jack, quickly became an important milestone in taking gay issues into the mainstream.
Not only a critical success, winning 16 Emmys over the course of its eight season run, Vice-President Joe Biden claimed the programme had done more to educate the American public about homosexuality “than almost anything anybody has ever done so far”. High praise indeed.
It is true that these milestones in television’s depiction of homosexuality have been divisive within the gay community as to whether they are celebratory or exploiting homosexuality as a novelty (often for comedic effect). But at the very least, these moments brought homosexuality into the public consciousness, often at times when contemporary attitudes to queer issues were ambivalent at best.