LGBTQ Equality

TV party: How LGBTQ+ characters on the small screen foiled the Religious Right

  Rob Boston

LGBTQ+ characters are common in popular culture these days. Much to the chagrin of Christian Nationalists, they populate sitcoms, dramas, police shows, reality TV, movies and more.

It wasn’t always that way. As a teenager in the 1970s, I remember being surprised to see two gay characters in the sitcom “Barney Miller,” which was set in a New York City police station. These characters, which weren’t regular members of the cast and appeared in only a few episodes, reflected some stereotypes, but in the main, they were portrayed sympathetically. Around the same time, a short-lived ABC sitcom, 1975’s “Hot L Baltimore,” featured two gay men who lived together as regular characters, and in “Soap,” an edgy sitcom that ran from 1977-81, comedian Billy Crystal played a regular character who was gay.

The inclusion of gay characters involved some risk. In the late 1970s, singer Anita Bryant was leading an often-successful nationwide anti-LGBTQ+ campaign, and the public’s acceptance of gay rights was nowhere near where it is today. The Rev. Donald Wildmon had built an entire organization, the National Federation for Decency (later renamed the American Family Association), around demands to “clean up” television.

The ‘Ellen’ moment — and its backlash

In the 1970s, gay characters were uncommon enough on television to attract attention; people talked about their inclusion. Remarkably, it took another 20 years for a TV series to feature a gay character as the lead. The ABC sitcom “Ellen” started airing in 1994, but the lead character, played by Ellen DeGeneres, did not come out until an episode that aired on April 30, 1997.

The reaction of Religious Right leaders was about what you’d expect: They went ballistic.

Martin Mawyer, a former Moral Majority official who ran the Christian Action Network, put on the Caps Lock button and screamed that DeGeneres had “DUMPED HER FILTHY LESBIAN LIFESTYLE RIGHT IN THE CENTER OF YOUR LIVING ROOM!! IT’S THE FIRST TIME IN THE HISTORY OF NETWORK TV THAT THE LEAD CHARACTER IS A SODOMITE!”

Word had leaked out before the episode aired that DeGeneres’ character would come out, leading the Rev. Jerry Falwell to demand a boycott of the show. He also referred to DeGeneres, a lesbian who came out publicly the same time as her character, as “Ellen Degenerate.” (Yep, Jerry always kept it classy.)

Pop culture fights back

Christian Nationalist leaders seemed to realize something significant was happening, and in the wake of the “Ellen” episode, they ramped up their anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. James Dobson of Focus on the Family warned, “We believe their ideas are dangerous to society at large and to the family in particular. Nevertheless, their advocates seem to be everywhere at once. The gay lifestyle is aggressively promoted throughout our culture, especially in television sitcoms, Hollywood movies and on university campuses.”

Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America was equally worked up. According to LaHaye, “radical homosexuals” were “forcing you and every other American citizen to gradually accept their lifestyle.” She warned that Christians had to fight back “before homosexuals completely win the culture war – and our families have lost.”

But here’s the thing: In this case, Christian Nationalists did lose the culture war. LGBTQ+ actors, singers and others are more visible than ever, and as they walked out of the closet decades ago, more and more Americans realized that they had LGBTQ+ friends, family members and coworkers.

Despite what Christian Nationalists claimed, this didn’t tear down our families. If anything, families emerged even stronger as more and more Americans, perhaps some influenced by those early portrayals on the small screen, sided with tolerance, acceptance and love over division, rejection and hate.

During Pride Month, those early TV pioneers – and the writers, producers and executives who had the courage to bring them into our homes – deserve a word of thanks.

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