Shaping Queer History, One Scene at a Time: 32 LGBTQ Television Moments That Broke Barriers
With shows like Pose and RuPaul’s Drag Race reverberating through households everywhere, it’s remarkable that gay TV moments — let alone openly LGBTQ characters on TV — were nearly non-existent in America only decades ago.
But as we travel back through televised history, it’s possible to uncover at least 30 gay TV moments — spanning all the way back to the early ’70s — that not only helped shape television into the important medium it is today but spark the visibility necessary for the LGBTQ community to thrive.
Here are 32 gay TV moments that have broken barriers and helped to shape queer history:
1. All in the Family (1971)
All in the Family (1971–1979) was the first success story of legendary TV creator Norman Lear. (Lear was also behind One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son to name but a few of his works.) All in the Family, about Archie Bunker, a conservative, reactionary racist living with his more liberal kids, was known for breaking many taboos, including the first toilet flush heard on television.
But starting off our list of gay TV moments, All in the Family was the first American show to feature a gay character. In the Season 1 episode “Judging Books by Their Covers,” Archie finds out his friend Steve, a former NFL linebacker played by Philip Carey, is gay. The episode, in which Archie learns that stereotypes aren’t always real, may play like a “Very Special Episode” now, but even that is an example of how influential this show was.
Sadly, Steve never showed up again, but four years later the show introduced an occasionally recurring trans character, Beverly LaSalle.
2. That Certain Summer (1972)
An ABC TV movie about a divorced dad who falls in love with a younger man, That Certain Summer starred Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen and was the first to deal with being gay in a sympathetic way.
Though the cast and crew, including Holbrook, braced for controversy, That Certain Summer was rather well-received. It was critically praised and nominated for seven Emmys, winning one, along with taking home a Golden Globe for Best Made-For-TV Movie.
3. An American Family (1973)
The first “reality show” (later satirized brilliantly by Albert Brooks in Real Life), An American Family (1973) was a day-to-day documentary about the Loud family. Eldest son Lance Loud was openly gay during the show’s filming — one of the very first LGBTQ characters on TV (though he was playing himself) — and he became a gay icon because of it.
Decades later, in 2001, PBS broadcast a final episode. In it Lance came out as HIV-positive and a former meth addict. Sadly, Lance passed away that very year due to complications with hepatitis C and HIV at the age of 50.
4. Hot_L Baltimore (1975)
Another Norman Lear sitcom, Hot_L Baltimore (1975) wasn’t nearly as successful as All in the Family, but as was common for Lear, the show broke ground on American TV. Not only were two of its main characters prostitutes, but the series featured the first gay couple on American TV.
The ABC sitcom was an ensemble piece, but its fifth episode, “George and Gordon,” focused on the show’s gay couple. In the episode their latest fight threatens to engulf the other residents of the hotel. Though the show had the full backing of the network, Hot_L Baltimore was cancelled after its 13-episode first season. And oddly enough, the series and its gay TV moments never aired on ABC’s own Baltimore affiliate.
5. Soap (1977)
Though an over-the-top soap opera parody, Soap (1977-1981) often covered the issues of the day — albeit in a frequently hilarious, twisted way. Soap is also known as one of Billy Crystal’s breakout roles, as he played Jodie Dallas, an openly gay man who fathers a daughter with another character, Carol.
When Carol runs off to join the rodeo (we told you it was over-the-top), Jodie gets custody of their child, making him primetime’s first gay dad. Soap had a large gay following and remains a popular cult classic to this day.
6. The Associates (1980)
The Associates (1979-1980), a short-lived sitcom starring Martin Short, looked at the lives of a small group of young lawyers at a Wall Street firm. In an episode titled “The Censors,” the topic of LGBTQ representation is brought up when a TV producer, a network censor and Martin Short’s character meet up with a gay activist to discuss whether it’s OK to refer to someone as “queer as a three-dollar bill.”
7. St. Elsewhere (1983)
Hit medical drama St. Elsewhere (1982-1988) had a few LGBTQ storylines, including an episode dealing with the strangely common ’80s TV trope of a college friend getting gender confirmation surgery. (Seriously, similar plots also appeared on WKRP in Cincinnati and Night Court.) But the 1983 episode “AIDS and Comfort” was the first American TV drama to address the epidemic.
A St. Elsewhere episode from the following year, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” features a character who ‘outs’ a visiting doctor to her colleagues. The news spreads among the hospital staff, and when the character is confronted about it, she’s told by a fellow doctor that she’s “perverted.” By the end of the episode, though, there’s an apology and forgiveness.
8. Designing Women (1987)
In 1987, Designing Women (1986-1993) ran a heartbreaking episode, “Killing All the Right People,” in which a gay man asks the women of Sugarbaker and Associates to design his funeral as he’s dying of AIDS.
The story was based on a real-life incident; show creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason lost her mother to an AIDS-related illness after she contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. When Bloodworth-Thomason was in the hospital, she overheard someone say that AIDS was “killing all the right people.”
This so enraged her (and rightfully so) that she had to write the episode, which features Julia Sugarbaker delivering a righteous takedown to a bigoted character who utters those exact words. Truly one of the greatest gay TV moments of all time.
9. thirtysomething (1989)
Though it only lasted for four seasons, thirtysomething (1987–1991) attracted a devoted audience for its story about Baby Boomers in their 30s trying to balance the counterculture and dominant yuppie culture of the ’80s. The show was known for not shying away from hot-button issues and had a few gay TV moments.
In the 1989 episode “Strangers” the show courted controversy for showing two gay characters in bed together after having sex. Those actors, David Marshall Grant and Peter Frechette, were forbidden by network censors to even touch each other.
10. Roc (1991)
The Fox family sitcom Roc (1991-1994) aired TV’s first-ever gay wedding in October 1991, a brave move that occurred during its very first season. In the eighth episode (titled “Can’t Help Loving That Man”), Roc, the show’s titular patriarch, discovers his uncle Russell is gay.
On top of that, Russell introduces his white fiancé, Andrew, and Roc’s wife agrees to let them marry in their home. Roc and his womanizing brother Joey make some stereotypical jokes through the episode, but ultimately the show treats the topic seriously, even as the main character struggles to accept his gay uncle.
11. L.A. Law (1991)
Like St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law (1986-1994) featured a number of LGBT-related storylines. The show’s pilot was actually about members of the law firm discovering their late senior partner was gay. But L.A. Law is on our list of gay TV moments for featuring the very first romantic lesbian kiss on primetime.
The kiss happens in the Season 5 episode “He’s a Crowd,” but unfortunately the gay storyline didn’t continue — one character was soon written out of the show, and the other ended up with a man. Michele Greene, one of the actresses involved in the lesbian kiss, later called it a publicity stunt, but it worked, as L.A. Law got a ratings bump and a new LGBTQ audience.
12. One Life to Live (1992)
While Soap was a parody, One Life to Live (1968–2012) is a real soap opera. Not just that, but it was the breakout show for Ryan Phillippe. He played Billy Douglas, the first openly gay teen character on a TV series. Billy was a heroic character, and though he was written out of the series a year later, he got a happy ending, leaving the fictional town of Llanview to go to Yale University.
13. Roseanne (1992)
Like L.A. Law, Roseanne (1988-1997) also had a “lesbian kiss” episode, but more importantly, while the show featured multiple LGBTQ characters on TV, it featured one of the first openly bisexual characters on TV, played by Sandra Bernhard.
As we said, queer characters weren’t rare on Roseanne: Leon Carp (Martin Mull), Roseanne’s former boss, was also gay, and later married his life partner Scott, played by Fred Willard.
14. My So-Called Life (1994)
Though it only aired for one season, My So-Called Life (1994-1995) became a bonafide cult classic. Though it’s mostly known for launching the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, the show also featured Wilson Cruz as the first gay teen in primetime.
Cruz played Rickie Vasquez, the gay best friend. He’s pretty stereotypical, however — including a love of makeup and a tragic backstory — but after his abusive uncle kicks him out, he finds a mentor in a gay English teacher who takes him in as a foster child.
15. The Real World: San Francisco (1994)
The third season of MTV’s groundbreaking reality series The Real World (1992-2017) featured Pedro Zamora, an openly gay and HIV-positive man. He and his partner’s commitment ceremony — one of the most touching gay TV moments ever — was the first real same-sex commitment ceremony broadcast on national TV. Sadly, Zamora died the same year the series aired.
16. Friends (1996)
Though Friends (1994-2004) doesn’t really hold up that well when you look at its track record on gay issues, we have to also point out that Friends was the first primetime TV series to feature a lesbian wedding — albeit a kiss-free one.
Despite the wedding episode, the characters often went out of their way to point out they weren’t comfortable with ‘gay stuff.’ Homophobic jokes were aplenty, including in scenes like Ross getting upset that his son is playing with a Barbie.
17. Ellen (1997)
The eponymous sitcom of comedian Ellen DeGeneres premiered on March 29, 1994, but it wasn’t until 1997 that she came out as gay in both real life and as TV’s Ellen Morgan in the now famous “Puppy Episode.” Coming out made Ellen (1994-1998) the first show to feature an openly lesbian actress playing an openly lesbian character.
Ellen played a quirky bookstore employee (and eventual owner) who was physically awkward and tended to ramble when nervous. In “The Puppy Episode” a series of dreams inspires Ellen to come out. When she does announce “I’m gay” to actress Laura Dern, she accidentally says it over an airport microphone, much to the shock of several passengers.
DeGeneres earned three Golden Globe nominations and four Emmy nominations during the show’s five-year run. “The Puppy Episode” had 42 million viewers and won a Peabody Award. But because of declining viewership and a general sense that the show had become less funny in favor of focusing on LGBTQ issues in 13 of its final season’s 21 episodes, the show was canceled.
18. Will & Grace (1998)
You’re probably well familiar with Will & Grace (1998-2006), currently back as one of the first big successful TV sitcom reboots, but it was also the first American sitcom to feature a gay male main character.
The show follows the friendship of Will Truman (Eric McCormack), a gay lawyer who is besties with Grace Adler (Debra Messing), a straight interior designer. Will’s flamboyant friend Jack provides comic relief while Grace’s drunken cohort Karen provides tart-tongued retorts and boozy laughs.
The sitcom helped open the door to other shows predominantly focusing on LGBTQ people. Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden even said, “I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”
The first run of the show stretched from September 1998 to May 2006, but it was rebooted in 2017 and has since been renewed for two additional seasons.
19. Dawson’s Creek (1999)
In the Season 3 finale of Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), entitled “True Love,” this romantic teen drama gave us TV’s first romantic gay male kiss. The kiss occurred between the characters Ethan, a gay college student, and Jack, a slightly shy and inexperienced high school student. Jack ended up dating two different guys in Season 4 and 5 of the show.
The show’s gay creator Kevin Williamson says he turned the Jack character gay (he was formerly dating women) to explore his own life experiences. And gay screenwriter Greg Berlanti helped add realism to the character. Though the show’s producers worried about conservative blowback, they figured the kiss would make for good ratings as something that had never been shown before.
20. Queer As Folk (2000)
Queer as Folk (2000-2005), the Showtime dramatic series based on Russell T. Davies’ U.K. show of the same name, appeared on American cable at the turn of the century, just as the battle over same-sex marriage was ramping up.
It was the first-ever cable drama featuring a strong ensemble cast of gay characters, namely five friends who struggle against homophobia, romantic turmoil and their own personal shortcomings while trying to live as openly gay men in the city of Pittsburgh.
Despite its groundbreaking depictions of gay sex and drug use, some gay viewers worried these depictions might cast a negative light on a community still fighting for its rights. Nevertheless, the show tackled a range of LGBTQ issues including HIV, police harassment, online dating, drug addiction, conversion therapy, gay bashings and much more.
21. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003)
As the first reality TV show to feature an all-gay cast, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-2007) appeared on Bravo TV three years after Vermont legalized civil unions and Nebraska voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage. The year it premiered, then-President George W. Bush endorsed a nationwide ban on marriage equality, illustrating the need for Americans to have more positive depictions of gay people on TV.
Groundbreaking for its five gay hosts, Queer Eye proved popular yet problematic. At its high point the reality makeover show’s first season had over 3 million viewers, but its second season dipped to 1.8 million.
The show won a 2004 Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program and a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004 and 2005, but critics blasted the show’s hosts as “stereotypes on parade” playing out the trope of “gayngels” who are just more naturally stylish than straight men.
The show got a Netflix reboot in 2018 with a new “Fab 5” roster that now provides makeovers for all sorts of people, not just straight guys.
22. As the World Turns (2007)
The CBS soap opera As the World Turns (1956-2010) aired 13,858 episodes in its 54-year run. But on Aug. 17, 2007, the show aired the first-ever daytime TV gay kiss between two male characters.
The kiss occurred between the show’s young resident Luke Snyder and Noah Mayer, a newly introduced character Snyder meets while working at the local broadcast station. The two kiss, but Mayer worries about being outed as gay, something his conservative military father would disapprove of.
Since the show was a soap opera, Snyder and Mayer’s ongoing relationship resulted in major drama. Mayer’s homophobic dad tries to kill Snyder, and Snyder struggles with being closeted while trying to become a local politician.
Fans came to know the couple as “Nuke” (a portmanteau of Luke and Noah). Their kiss was later said to be an attempt to lure younger viewers.
23. The Rachel Maddow Show (2008)
When The Rachel Maddow Show (2008–present) appeared on the MSNBC news network in September 2008, political commentator Rachel Maddow became the first openly gay anchor of a primetime program on a major news network.
Known as a good-humored and rational counterpoint to the shrill, aging, white anchormen of cable news, Maddow is particularly known for adding historical context to her analysis of breaking political news.
In March 2018, Maddow’s show gained a higher viewership than that of conservative FOX News blowhard Sean Hannity, with Maddow getting 3.058 million viewers compared to Hannity’s 3 million.
24. All My Children (2009)
In February 2009, ABC’s long-running soap opera All My Children (1970-2011) aired the first same-sex legal wedding in daytime TV as Bianca and Reese (or “Breese” as fans called them) tied the knot.
Despite their groundbreaking wedding, some fans criticized their relationship for simply being a way for the show’s writers to explore well-trod storylines about dubious “sperm donors, custody battles and sexually confused lesbians.” Others criticized the show for now allowing the brides to emotionally connect.
25. RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009)
26. Orange is the New Black (2013)
In Netflix’s women-in-prison drama Orange is the New Black (2013-current), Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset, a trans hairstylist doing time at the Litchfield women’s penitentiary for stealing credit cards to fund her transition procedures.
In 2014 Cox became the first openly trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy (for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy). Although Cox didn’t win the award — competing against other actresses such as Joan Cusack, Natasha Lyonne and Melissa McCarthy — she lost to Uzo Aduba, the black actress who plays the role of Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren, a fellow inmate in Orange Is the New Black.
27. The Academy Awards (2015)
When Neil Patrick Harris hosted the 87th Academy Awards in 2015, he became the first openly gay man to host the annual awards.
He started off the show by making a joke about the lack of racial diversity among award nominees, saying the Oscars were a chance to recognize “the best and the whitest — sorry, brightest.” He then launched into a comedic opening number lauding the excitement around the awards show while dropping in a joke about the bromance between actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Later on in the show, he appeared in briefs onstage in an allusion to a similar scene in the Best Picture-nominated Birdman.
28. Transparent (2015)
In January 2015, the first season of Amazon’s groundbreaking show Transparent (2014—present) — starring cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor playing newly out trans woman Maura Pfefferman — won the Golden Globe for Best TV Comedy, a first for such an openly queer show.
The series follows the self-absorbed and emotionally stunted Pfefferman family, whose father, mother and three children all struggle with different issues in relationships, love and gender expression. The show hired many trans people to work as actors, writers and crew, providing an insightful and nuanced look into the personal challenges faced by trans people.
From the show’s start, people criticized creator Jill Soloway’s casting of a cis man in a trans role. Tambor was eventually fired from the show after two members of the show’s trans family accused him of sexual harassment.
29. Star Trek: Discovery (2017)
In fall 2017, the CBS sci-fi series Star Trek: Discovery (2017–present) made history by unveiling the first-ever openly gay characters in the 51-year-old Star Trek franchise.
The series featured openly gay actors Anthony Rapp (playing moody Lieutenant Stamets, a scientist experimenting with new spore-based form of teleportation) and Wilson Cruz (playing Stamets’ concerned but supportive lover, Dr. Hugh Culber).
The two characters shared a groundbreaking kiss during a particularly tense scene when their ship was under attack, but later on in the series a dramatic twist disappointed some gay fans, leaving them unclear about the couple’s future. Nevertheless, both actors said they were honored to play their respective roles, and the characters’ gay TV moments will live on forever.
30. Instinct (2018)
In 2018, openly bisexual actor Alan Cumming was cast in Instinct (2018–present) as one of the first openly LGBTQ characters on TV to lead a broadcast network drama, as Dr. Dylan Reinhart, an ex-CIA operative helping the NYPD track down a serial murderer.
Dr. Reinhart is an openly gay author and university psychology professor who once lived a quiet life teaching psychopathic behavior to his devoted students. But despite having a fulfilling career and being in a happy relationship, he feels compelled to help the NYPD find a killer whose murders are inspired by one of Reinhart’s early books.
Reviews of the show have praised Cummings’ jovial acting ability as a tonal counterpoint to the grisly murders depicted in the show.
31. American Idol (2018)
The reality TV singing competition American Idol (2002–2018) has now been on the air for 16 seasons, but it only featured its first drag queen contestant, Ada Vox, in Season 16.
Before he appeared on the show as his drag alter-ego Ada Vox in Season 16, Vox appeared out of drag in Season 12 under his given name Adam Sanders. Sanders said he received a lot of insulting hate mail after his initial appearance, and so he spent the years in between working on becoming a stronger person in the guise of Ada Vox.
Although Vox lost after not receiving enough audience votes following his performance of “The Circle of Life” from Disney’s The Lion King, he left an indelible impression on the show as one of its most beloved openly queer performers.
32. Black Lightning (2018)
If you don’t watch The CW’s Black Lighting (2018–present), then you’re missing the first lesbian superhero in a network series. The superhero’s name is Thunder, her civilian name is Anissa Pierce and she’s played by actress Nafessa Williams.
In the series she’s the the daughter of Jefferson Pierce, a high school principal who moonlights as the male superhero Black Lightning. Black Lightning stopped using his powers for several years when he started raising a family, but when drugs and gangs return to his community, Black Lightning resumes crime-fighting and his daughter eventually becomes his sidekick after discovering her own superpowers.
Thunder can create shockwaves to stun and knock out her enemies. She also had a girlfriend for a while, and her real-life alter-ego deals with issues of societal racism and oppression while figuring out how to safely navigate the legal system.
Watch our video on some of the most groundbreaking gay TV moments below:
Did we miss any of your favorite LGBTQ characters on TV? Or any of your favorite gay TV moments?
This article was originally published on July 6, 2020. It has since been updated.