In honor of the return of the L Word we dive into a history of queer tv. From Canadian docuseries in the 70’s to groundbreaking British dramas in the 80’s. On to the popular 90’s American sitcoms and historical moments of the 2000’s.
We cover the many ups and downs, protests and controversies. One failed and cancelled show after another paved the way for the incredible queer content we enjoy on TV today. So join us on this winding journey. Dial in and don’t worry about rushing through the commercials. It’s AD free as we discuss queer TV.
In honor of the return of notorious lesbian drama the L Word, today we dive into queer tv. Covering some of the most groundbreaking moments and influential shows in English TV history. That’s right, we’re not just talking about America in this episode. We’re also covering England and Canada as the three countries have heavily influenced each others television. And we’ll be all over the place with genres from documentaries and dramas to sitcoms and reality tv. But let us take you back to where it all began; Canada, 1972.
Before reality tv there were just docuseries. Which is how the first show dedicated to queer people was structured. In 1972 Toronto, Canada’s local community channel aired Coming Out. A 13 episode series that profiled early gay rights activists and the LGBTQ movement in Canada. The show covered a variety of members in the community and was one of the first positive exposures of queer culture produced on television. However, Coming Out was never picked up by any national broadcasting channels and the series only ran for one season. Yet it opened the door for queer exposure on TV. And possibly inspired All In The Family producer Norman Lear to pitch his new idea to the American Broadcasting Channel (ABC).
Lear was the hit TV producer of the 1970’s; the Shonda Rhimes of his era so to speak. For the past four years he had given audiences one smashing success after another. Starting with All In the Family in 1971, Sanford and Sons in 1972, Maude in 1973, Good Times in 1974, and his newest release The Jeffersons in 1975. So it is no wonder producers were willing to take a chance on his new show Hot’L Baltimore. The sitcom was set in a run down hotel in Baltimore and featured an array of characters from prostitutes to illegal immigrants. But the most controversial was the older gay couple who lived at the hotel. Because of the content, when Hot’L Baltimore debuted in 1975 it was the first show on ABC to run a warning label before every episode. Yet even with Norman Lear backing the project and ABC – to their credit- standing by his side, the show faced harsh backlash. Ratings remained low and protests stayed high. Though the broadcasting company allowed the sitcom to complete its first season they didn’t pick it up again for a second year.
This would be a recurring theme for the next 20 years. Shows prominently featuring LGBTQ characters would make their debut, run for a season, and then get cancelled. In 1977 Gay News and Views aired in Toronto as a talk show meets news segment for the queer community. The show managed to squeeze in two series runs in the fall of ‘77 and the spring of ‘78. But from its inception there was backlash from every side. Conservatives protested before the first episode ever aired and managed to push Gay News and Views from the prime 6pm slot to a much later 10pm program time. Complaints also got the show temporarily cancelled, then complaints from queer views and allys had it put back on the air. Eventually the program became too much of a headache for broadcasting company MaClean-Hunter and it was officially cancelled in May of 1978. Upon its cancellation one TV executive stated that Gay News and Views was “disrespectful to the establishment heterosexual community”.
The following year across the pond Britain gave its first real shot at queer representation on tv. The news segment Gay Life premiered on Sunday evening at 11:30 pm on February 11, 1980. The weekly show ran for one year before being cancelled in 1981. But the same year Gay News made its entrance another show debut that would find more success. The sitcom Agony premiered and managed to run for three seasons, albeit they were much shorter seasons than the American or Canadian 13+ episode run. Agony only produced 7 30-minute episodes each year. But they packed in a lot for that small amount of time addressing many controversial subjects of the time. Episodes featured talk of drugs, suicide, racism and homosexuality. Including the recurring characters of a gay couple who played neighbors to the main character, Jane. Despite its short run, the show was incredibly popular and inspired the American version, the Lucie Arnaz Show. However, we couldn’t find out if the show carried the gay characters with it.
It’s not like America was doing well with keeping any show that portrayed positive queer storylines. Vincent Shiavelli had been the first American actor to play a recurring gay character on television. His role as Peter Panama in 1972 ABC show The Corner Bar has been praised for decades. Yet just like Lear’s Hot’L Baltimore which came 3 years later, The Corner Bar was shelved after one season. It would be another 16 years before any american TV series would try again with a gay character. And that would come in 1988 with the debut of the ABC drama Heartbeat. Not to be confused with the British 1992 Heartbeat or the 2016 NBC series Heartbeat. The original series was a medical drama featuring three female leads, with one of the main characters being an out lesbian who had a long term partner.
In many ways the show was groundbreaking by making a main character a lesbian. However, the actresses who played the lovers were never allowed to show intimacy unlike their straight counterparts. Still, the show got people talking. In a pre-debut interview, People Magazine ran an article titled “Is Prime Time Ready for it’s First Lesbian? Gail Strickland Hopes So- And She’s About to Find Out”. In the interview the actress Gail Strickland, who plays lesbian Marilyn McGrath, gave a beautiful response to the reporters question. In regards to her controversial role she stated:
“It’s not often actors get to play parts that might make a difference. The fact that somewhere, somehow, someone’s perspective might be softened is important to me. [My Character] Marilyn is a loving, warm professional who cares about her daughter and has been in a good relationship for four years. If that is how I’m stereotyped, then that’s fine with me. My only worry was that the network wouldn’t fulfill their part of the bargain. I’m sure they’ll get mail, and I’m afraid they’ll pull back when they get negative responses.”
And Strickland was exactly right about the backlash. Ultimately the show tanked in the ratings and protests over the content caused Heartbeat to be cancelled after 2 seasons. Yet more than 30 years of open activism by individuals in the LGBTQ community was starting to pay off. In 1986, the American channel HBO partnered with Canadian television to feature the short drama The Truth About Alex. A story of a young gay teen who is outed and his best friends journey to accepting Alex’s orientation. The made for TV movie went on to win two of Canada’s Gemini Awards and Americas Golden Eagle Award, presented by the CINE foundation in Washington D.C.
Three years later in 1989 Canadian hit teen drama Degrassi produced a spin off show titled Degrassi High. The show aired on Canadian, Australian and American television and sparked controversy as it tackled real teen issues. The most controversial was a two part episode about abortion, which would be cut out and censored for the next 15 years. But topics such as drugs, sex, suicide, and gay rights also got the show into trouble. Eventually Degrassi High would be cancelled after two seasons. Yet the popularity pushed yet another spin off into Degrassi: Next Generation and remains a cult favorite show to this day. It was the perfect introduction into the explosion of queer exposure the 90’s brought to TV.
We cannot understate the importance of 90’s television in relation to LGBTQ activism. While censorship was heavy and protests were frequent, nevertheless the 90’s did come through in the end. We’ll start with an obscure show that seemed to be about 10 years too early. Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit aired on the British Broadcasting Channel (BBC) in 1990. The plot centered around a young woman raised in an evangelical home who realizes she is a lesbian. Only 3 episodes were made but the show managed to cause quite an outcry for its lesbian scenes and perceived attack on the evanlegical faith. Still, it also gained great critical acclaim. And won the BAFTA award in Britain and the GLAAD limited tv series award in America. In fact, Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit left such a lasting impact that in 2010 the Guardian ranked it at number 8 for best TV dramas of all time.
Throughout the mid-90’s many popular TV shows in Canada, Britain, and the States all featured occasional queer characters or episodes centering around queer issues. To their credit, Canada did try to launch Tales of the City in 1993, a strictly LGBTQ oriented show. But outcry caused producers to pull the plug after a 10 episode run. For most of the early 90’s shows were forced to keep to quick and simple storylines for queer appearances. Almost all of which featured lesbian or gay characters and rarely ever showed other representations of the queer alphabet. The first on screen lesbian kiss in America was aired in 1991 on the widely popular L.A. Law. Canada’s Family Passion featured a short storyline about a lesbian couple wanting to adopt. And of course, who could forget Ross’s ex wife on Friends who later came out as a lesbian. The show also featured a lesbian wedding and attracted over 36 million viewers to watch it unfold.
As the decade continued to progress, gay characters were no longer a mere glimpse appearance. Now they were recurring figures in popular shows. Though often their entire character development was singularly focused on the individuals orientation. In Britain the show This Life centered around 5 housemates, one of which was openly gay and spent quite a bit of time in therapy over his orientation. Canada ran a similar theme in the show Liberty Street which told the story of the tenants in an apartment building. Like This Life, in Liberty Street one of the main characters was a gay man who lived openly and often navigated the threats of discrimination. In many ways the portrayal of the burdens of gay people did aid in garnering public sympathy. However, it reduced the characters to one dimensional and did not allow audiences to see queer people as fully whole and human.
In America things had really taken off in respect to queer representation on TV. The show Relativity featured what some hardcore fans consider the first REAL lesbian kiss. In 1997 the scene between actresses Lisa Edelstein and Kristin Dattilo was quite a steamy one to be sure. And it also featured the first on screen kiss between two actual queer women. Another landmark was the hugely popular teen show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was one of the first shows tailored to young people that featured a recurring gay character. And if you know anything about American television you know that character was Willow, one of Buffy’s best friends. Of course even though the series dropped in 1997, Willow wouldn’t come out until the early 2000’s. Still, the shows openness to queer themes has left a lasting impression on many LGBTQ Millenials.
Yet things were moving in other parts of the world as well. In Canada they brought back Tales of the City in another 10 episode adaption titled More Tales of the City. Once again the series only ran briefly, but the transgender character Mrs. Madrigal comes out marking the character as a trans icon. And of course, perhaps the most well known queer show of the 90’s came in right at the very end. In 1998 Will and Grace premiered and would run as one of the most successful sitcoms of the era. The show featured not one but two gay men, a faghag, and a sexually fluid alcoholic as it’s main cast. It won 16 Emmys and was nominated over 80 times. To this day it is hard to find many people who have not seen at least one Will and Grace episode. And even it’s revival more than 15 years later still draws moderately high ratings.
But it wasn’t just sitcoms and drama that made people pay attention to queer issues. The Real World was one of the first popular reality shows in mainstream culture. And in it’s cast it featured a gay man named Sean living with HIV. The show also aired his same-sex ceremony with his boyfriend. Sadly, Sean passed away just hours after the 1994 season finale of the Real World. But the increase in queer visibility no doubt inspired many others including popular sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres. Who came out on her show during the Puppy Episode in 1997. The episode won Ellen a Peabody Award and cancellation of her show. It would be several years before she would find much success in entertainment. However, that all changed with the debut of her iconic talk show, Ellen.
While the 90’s certainly shoved the door open the 2000’s took a wrecking ball and leveled the entrance. Remember how we mentioned that the first female to female kiss aired in 1991? Well in 2000 networks STILL had not allowed two men to be aired kissing on scripted television. So a few shows decided to take matters into their own hands. One was the popular teen drama Dawson’s Creek which finally allowed gay characters Jack and Ethan to kiss during the season 3 finale. Another show was Will and Grace, which made fun of network TV’s avoidance of male on male affection. During an episode Will and Jack go to protest this cause outside of the Today Show and in frustration Will plants a big kiss on the unsuspecting Jack. Though the kiss was comical, it still got the point across.
A watershed for queer television though began in April of 1999 when Britains Channel 4 aired the show Queer as Folk. While people had been coming around to the idea of LGBTQ representation on TV, the sex charged first episode of the hour long drama was shocking for many. And delightful for others causing the popularity of the show to carry across the ocean to America and Canada. In 2000 Showtime launched the American version of Queer As Folk to rave reviews and raving protesters. That didn’t stop the groundbreaking network from running the show for the next 5 seasons. Or from launching the similar series The L Word in 2004, a show that any good lesbian has seen today. Unless you’re in Britain and prefer the UK version, Lip Service.
Throughout the 2000’s queer television continued to evolve. The show Noah’s Arc aired on Logo TV in 2005 and became the networks most popular series. It centered around the stories of black and latino gay men in Los Angeles. And to this day is one of the few series which has so prominently featured queer people of color. Despite its high ratings, the show was abruptly cancelled after the season 2 finale. To this day no one has given a solid reason as to why the show was dropped despite being the networks most popular series. It would be 12 years before we would see another show that focused on queer people of color the same way.
Along the way several breakout shows with strong queer themes or which centered around LGBTQ issues hit the mainstream. Modern Family, featuring two gay dads and numerous gay characters, has earned 22 Emmy’s in it’s 11 year run. As well as a host of other awards and critical acclaim as one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. Several other popular shows such as America’s The Fosters, and Orange is the New Black. As well as Britain’s Skins and Sugar Rush, and Canada’s Schitt’s Creek have all continued incorporate queer themes into mainstream television. And these are only a fraction of the countless LGBTQ centric shows that are out there.
In more recent years transgender and non binary people are now seeing proper representation on the screen. The breakout show Transparent on Amazon featured a transgender woman who begins her transition much later in life. On the flip side, earlier this year Amazon also released the show Euphoria. Which features a horde of young gender and sexually fluid people and stars several queer artists. In keeping with a strong theme, Canada released another mini series in the Tales of the City story. This one though is much more diverse in cultures and expressions. And for the low representation of queer people of color, 12 years after Noah’s Arc Pose made it’s debut. A show that focuses on queer black and latino people. But that also deeply shines a light on trans women of color.
We started this timeline in the 1970’s and almost 50 years later, we’re finally starting to see the representation we need. Yes it’s taken us a long time to get here. The new premier for the L Word promises a future in queer tv as diverse as our community. We can only hope it won’t take us another 50 years to appreciate the impact TV representation can have on a society. As presidential candidate Joe Biden once said (and no, this is not at all an endorsement) “[Will and Grace] probably did more to educate the American public than almost anyone has ever done so far”. The statement certainly devalues the decades of LGBTQ activism. But it does show the power of television. And most importantly, the power of exclusion and inclusion. May we always continue to work towards inclusion.
NYT – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/16/arts/television/14-tv-shows-that-broke-ground-with-gay-and-transgender-characters.html
Glamour – https://www.glamour.com/story/big-moments-for-queer-representation-on-tv
Hot L Baltimore – http://greatbutforgotten.blogspot.com/2007/12/hot-l-baltimore-tv-1975.html
News and Views (Wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gay_News_and_Views
News and Views (bookshelves) – http://onthebookshelves.com/gaynews.htm
Heartbeat (wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HeartBeat_(1988_TV_series)
Logo – http://www.newnownext.com/gay-kisses-television/07/2017/
Degrassi – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrassi_High
Queer as folk – https://journals.dartmouth.edu/cgi-bin/WebObjects/Journals.woa/1/xmlpage/4/article/325