If you imagine a society entirely based on what you’ve seen in 1970’s sitcoms, there aren’t many gay people in the world. And those that do exist are almost all extravagantly camp fashionistas who talk funny and aren’t like real men. Thankfully, today’s television presents a much more diverse view of LGBT identities.
It’s amazing just how powerfully TV can reflect, and sometimes even change, the public’s perception on such issues. Sitcoms provide a particularly good opportunity for this. If you can make someone laugh, you can also make them think.
…or you might just make them angry. Put a gay character in your sitcom and you’re bound to offend those of a more traditional (i.e. bigoted) mindset. You’re also courting controversy if you rely too heavily on unfair stereotypes. So, here are 15 LGBT sitcom characters who undoubtedly angered some viewers, but won a place in the hearts of others.
15. Carol Willick (Friends)
When Ross discovered that his ex-wife Carol, was now in a relationship with a woman, it was played for laughs. This guy’s so bad at keeping a woman, he turned her gay! Hmm. We’re not quite sure that’s how sexuality works.
Nevertheless, Carol and her partner, Susan, were developed much more as Friends went on, eventually giving us a rounded and human take on a lesbian couple. And then they tied the knot in an episode entitled The One with the Lesbian Wedding, at a time when same-s*x marriage was not legal anywhere in the world.
As you’d expect, this caused something of an uproar in the media, with two network affiliates refusing to air the episode. However, perhaps due to the wedding scene not actually featuring a kiss (a bit of a cop-out, maybe), NBC received far less viewer complaints than they’d expected—only four were angry enough to call in!
14. Jodie Dallas (Soap)
One of the first regular gay characters on US television, Jodie Dallas, appeared on ABC’s Soap, which aired from 1977 to 1981, and was not actually a soap but a parody of the soap genre. Played by a pre-When Harry Met Sally, very-pre-Monsters, Inc Billy Crystal, Jodie was a young gay man living with his mother.
Soap achieved the double whammy of inflaming groups on both sides of the debate. Many religious organizations were offended by the idea of a homosexual character on prime time television (“Children could watch this! What if it turned them gay?” and so on). The Catholic Church called for a boycott, and a letter-writing campaign led to over 20,000 complaints, which probably ended up in ABC’s trash pile.
Meanwhile, gay rights groups were offended by the stereotypical and uninformed portrayal of the character, particularly the way the show’s writers had conflated transgenderism with homosexuality with having Jodie decide he must have a s*x change in order to marry his boyfriend. These complaints were actually listened to. As the show went on, the s*x change story was dropped and the character developed beyond stereotypes.
13. Patty Bouvier (The Simpsons)
The Simpsons hit headlines in 2005 when its creators announced that an upcoming episode would reveal a major character to be gay. While many Springfield residents had bets placed on them, it turned out to be Marge’s sister, Patty. In the episode There’s Something About Marrying, Patty reveals to Marge that she’s engaged to another woman.
This was something of a groundbreaking episode, especially considering same-s*x marriage would not become legal across the States for another ten years. Of course, it attracted a lot of criticism from conservative groups, who took their usual offence at the way it apparently ‘promoted’ the idea of gay marriage.
It didn’t have a particularly happy ending for Patty, as at the end of the episode, she found out that her fiancée, Veronica, was actually a man. Still, at least it wasn’t a total cop-out. Patty was indeed gay and eventually called off the wedding. One more gay character on The Simpsons was yet to come out. We’ll find out later.
12. Steve (All In The Family)
Though he’s often regarded as one of the greatest sitcom characters of all time, you weren’t meant to like Archie Bunker. The head of a working class family in Queens, he was an outspoken bigot who hated everyone different to him—and let them know it. No wonder the gay episode caused controversy.
In the February 1971, episode Judging Books By Covers, Archie refuses to spend time with a flamboyant friend-of-a-friend, Roger, based on the assumption that he’s gay. He calls him “Roger the fairy.” Instead, Archie goes to the bar with his macho, football-playing buddy Steve. And then, plot twist—Steve is the gay one! Archie ends the episode humiliated, having offended Steve and being punched in the face by him.
This episode’s clever subversion of Archie’s expectations (and the audience’s) certainly got people talking. In fact, it even offended Richard Nixon. A recording found in the infamous White House tapes features the President’s less than generous review of the episode—“Goddamn it, I do not think that you glorify on public television homosexuality … what do you think that does to kids?”
11. Titus Andromedon (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)
As far as gay stereotypes go, you don’t get much more over-the-top than Titus Andromedon. Played by Tituss Burgess, he’s a failing actor with a flamboyant wardrobe and a love for musical theater. If Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had been aired ten years earlier, he’d no doubt have attracted a lot of criticism for playing up to unfair representations of homosexuals.
And yet, the show hit Netflix at a time when this kind of stereotype was no longer as much of a problem as it used to be, and perhaps when such a character was needed. There’d been a lot of shows that had put effort into making their gay characters not so different to the straight guys. And so many gay viewers latched onto Titus as a reminder that actually, if you’re a gay man, it’s fine to act ‘gay’ as long as, unlike Titus, you pay your rent every month.
10. Ilana Wexler (Broad City)
Her schemes to avoid work and have fun are a constant irritant to her bosses and her best friend, Abbi, but the hedonistic and self-absorbed Ilana Wexler, played by the suspiciously similar-named Ilana Glazer, is a lot of fun to watch.
An out-and-proud bisexual and an icon for a very modern liberal attitude to sexuality, Wexler may spend a lot of the series in a relationship with a man, but she also has no shame about engaging in no-strings s*x with partners of whatever gender she pleases.
She’s the kind of character who would never have been allowed on TV just ten years ago, so we should be glad that Comedy Central took a punt on developing Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s web series. If you haven’t done so yet, take a trip to Broad City.
9. Kenny O’Neal (The Real O’Neals)
The Real O’Neals, which premiered on ABC last year, has a solid set-up. An Irish-American matriarch has a pristine, traditional image of how her very Catholic family looks, and then finds out that one son is gay, one is anorexic, the daughter’s an atheist, and her husband wants a divorce. As stereotypes are questioned, the family must adjust to the new dynamic.
It’s a smart, fun show, and the neurotic young Kenny, played by Noah Galvin, is one of the most entertaining characters. That doesn’t mean it’s free from controversy. Christian right and pro-traditional family groups weren’t so keen on the concept, and called for a boycott in 2016.
In this case, the gay character himself (and even the actor who plays him) has also caused offense. One second-season episode featured the character cracking a joke about bisexuals, which didn’t go down too well. And in real life, Galvin caused a ruckus during an interview with Vulture when he insulted several other gay celebrities, and criticized Colton Haynes’ method of coming out. Galvin had to apologize for his comments.
8. Cameron And Mitchell (Modern Family)
Even in 2009, the typical view of an American family was that there’d be a husband and wife with two kids and a dog. Modern Family, right from its title, set out to confront these traditional views through three very different, yet very normal family units.
One of these was Mitchell Pritchett and his husband Cameron, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, along with their adopted Vietnamese daughter, Lily. While Cam often gets on Mitch’s nerves with his drama queen-esque personality, and Mitch can be more than a little uptight, the three of them make a very modern and very believable family.
Those who couldn’t separate themselves from the traditional views of what a family should be like took offense to Modern Family, with the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer blasting the show for being “designed to make you think that same-s*x households are wonderful” (well, aren’t they?) and describing same-s*x parenting as “a form of child abuse” (it isn’t).
7. Waylon Smithers (The Simpsons)
Having appeared in The Simpsons since the very first season in 1990, Smithers is perhaps the longest-running gay character on television, though it took him 27 years to come out.
The sycophantic personal assistant of heartless billionaire, Mr. Burns, Smithers was always intended to be gay, with the show’s creators deciding early on that they’d pepper his scenes with double entendres and subtle allusions implying that he’s attracted to his employer. Many of these jokes led to conflict with the censors, including a dream sequence where a naked Mr. Burns jumps out of a birthday cake. On the other hand, changing attitudes towards sexuality as the show has gone on have led to this kind of humor being seen by many as homophobic.
It was perhaps this change of attitude that led to the 2016 episode, The Burns Cage, in which Smithers finally comes out as gay, surprising no one, and Homer tries to find him a boyfriend. This episode had a mixed reaction. While some critics were concerned that the retcon would end the humor surrounding Smithers, others were happy that his sexuality was being addressed in a more mature way.
6. Will Truman and Jack McFarland (Will & Grace)
With two gay men front and center, Will & Grace almost didn’t make it on air. NBC was concerned about the hostile reaction the show would face, especially since ABC’s Ellen had recently been cancelled after focus on gay storylines had caused it to lose ratings. It’s a good thing they took the risk.
Will & Grace did initially attract a lot of criticism, with boycotts from the usual groups and some critics seeing it as nothing more than “a gay Seinfeld.” However, in what way is that a bad thing? Some viewers thought that the flamboyant and promiscuous Jack was too much of a gay stereotype, while others thought that the grounded and professional Will was too little of one.
What these characters actually gave us was a demonstration that there is no one way to be gay, and as they developed over eight seasons and the show became more and more popular, they broadened public views on homosexuality.
5. Ray Holt (Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
Police precinct sitcom, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, has boldly handled several controversial issues. One of its most progressive elements is in the low-key way with which it handled Captain Ray Holt’s sexuality.
In the show’s pilot episode, the team of cops, in particular Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta, speculate about their overly serious new captain’s sexuality, only for him to nonchalantly confirm that he’s gay, before ordering them back to work. In fact, Holt has a husband, who we meet later in the series, though his sexuality is never the focus of the stories.
By refusing to make such a fuss about his sexuality, Brooklyn Nine-Nine allows Holt to be a multi-faceted and much-loved character, and it shows how much television has progressed that the show is able to portray him this way.
4. Mr. Humphries (Are You Being Served?)
A remarkably long-running sitcom (especially by British standards), Are You Being Served?, was set in the fictional Grace Brothers department store and aired on BBC from 1972 to 1985. Its most well-remembered character, for better or worse, was Mr. Wilberforce Clayborne Humphries, a menswear salesman played by John Inman.
Humphries fulfilled just about every ill-informed 70’s stereotype of the gay man. He had a mincing walk and a high-pitched voice, and would often show up to work in leather or a sailor’s uniform. Though his sexuality was never confirmed onscreen (they wouldn’t have got away with it!), he was always particularly eager to serve male customers, not at least the one who wanted to buy a dress for a fancy dress party. Sigh!
Though Mr. Humphries has since evolved into something of a gay icon, the way he was presented was very representative of the homophobia of the times. There was a brief attempt to revive Are You Being Served? last year, but this kind of gay character is probably best left in the 70’s.
3. Oscar Martinez (The Office)
Poor Oscar. Throughout the first two seasons of The Office, Oscar Nuñez’ character takes the full brunt of manager Michael Scott’s awkwardly offensive humor due to being Mexican. And then he comes out as gay…
It’s in the Season 3 opener Gay Witch Hunt, that Oscar takes offense at Michael jokingly calling him ‘faggy’, with Michael not realizing that the accountant is in fact gay. This leads to the boss trying to reconcile with Oscar by kissing him, while Dwight fashions a gaydar… again, poor Oscar.
Nevertheless, Oscar was taking one for the team, as according to GLAAD, he was the only LGBT person of color regularly appearing on TV from 2006 to 2008—an entire section of society being represented by one accountant.
2. Peter Panama (The Corner Bar)
The accolade of the first continuing gay character on US television goes to Peter Panama, played by Vincent Sciavelli in ABC’s The Corner Bar, a summer replacement sitcom from way back in 1972.
The eponymous bar was Grant’s Tomb, a run-down neighborhood tavern. The series followed its owner Harry and several of its regular patrons. One such patron was Panama, who spoke with a camp manner and a caricatured swish of his hand. In one story, Harry got Peter to redecorate the bar because that’s the kind of thing that homosexuals are good at, right?
The president of the Gay Activists Alliance called Panama “the worst stereotype of a gay person I’ve ever seen” and threatened political pressure. In response, producers promised to ‘redirect’ the character if The Corner Bar was brought back. When it did return for one more season, however, the characters had been changed around, and Peter Panama had been redirected off the cast list. It wasn’t the best start to LGBT representation in sitcoms, but it was a start.
1. Ellen Morgan (Ellen)
The scene where the likable but clumsy bookstore owner Ellen Morgan comes out, accidentally broadcasting her announcement of “I’m gay!” to an entire airport terminal, is the defining moment when it comes to LGBT representation on TV. With the episode (titled The Puppy Episode) broadcast to coincide with star Ellen DeGeneres’ real-life coming out on The Oprah Winfrey Show, it created quite the media frenzy.
The Puppy Episode itself achieved enormously high ratings and critical acclaim, and is still regarded as a television classic. However, it was followed by a backlash. The efforts of anti-gay groups led to many viewers ditching Ellen, especially when it began focusing more heavily on its gay stories and taking a more serious tone. ABC pulled the show just one year after that famous moment.
Nevertheless, with her now popular talk show, not to mention appearances as an animated fish, DeGeneres pulled herself back from her cancellation and has since become an icon of LGBT rights.