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10 Gay TV Characters I Remember Most

Thanks to ABC Family’s new series The Fosters for sponsoring this post. Click here to see more of the discussion. Also, watch the series premiere of The Fosters on Monday, June 3 at 9/8c only on ABC Family.

I’m 42 years old, but my gay lifespan has been much shorter. I didn’t come out until well into my adulthood. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention to how our culture treated gay people over the years in particular, how the media presented them.

If you’re gay, odds are good that TV portrayals had an influence on your coming out process for better or for worse, depending on the decade.  Maybe you watched a show with a character with whom you identified, who made you feel less isolated.  Maybe you watched a show where gay people were the target of mean-spirited mockery, and it kept you living in a closet longer than you might’ve otherwise.

Over the last couple years, television has gone to considerable effort to normalize gay characters and bring them into the mainstream.  But this certainly wasn’t always the case.  When I look back over my long life as a TV viewer, I can think of several characters that influenced my own coming out in a range of ways.  You may have a list of your own.  Here’s mine.


  • 1977: Jack Tripper from Three’s Company 1 of 10
    1977: Jack Tripper from Three's Company
    The first gay character I ever saw on TV was Jack Tripper, the male third of Three's Company. I know. He wasn't actually gay. He pretended to be gay so that his landlord Mr. Roper wouldn't have a problem with him shacking up with Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers. If I recall, Jack (played by John Ritter) was a skirt-chasing dawg, and part of the comedy was in the fact that he had to femme it up whenever Mr. Roper came sniffing around, on the lookout for any potential impropriety. I was just a kid at the time. Back then, Jack Tripper mainly taught me that gay people existed to be made fun of. Not a great lesson, but this was the same decade that spawned bell-bottoms, pet rocks, and Farrah Hair. What can we do but forgive, right? I'm sure there were other gay characters, actual gay characters, crossing various TV thresholds in the 70s. But I only remember this guy, who played gay solely for laughs. The wrong kind of laughs. (Photo Credit: kingworldnew.com)
  • 1989: Russell and Peter from thirtysomething 2 of 10
    1989: Russell and Peter from thirtysomething
    Everyone I knew in the late 80s/early 90s loved thirtysomething, the show about pretty people with recognizable domestic problems and sharp dialogue. None of the main characters were gay (although many guys had high hopes for Peter Horton's scruffy professor Gary). But here's what I remember: at some point during the show's run, an episode aired in which two recurring gay characters named Russell and Peter (David Marshall Grant and Peter Frechette, too peripheral to be pictured above) hook up, and then chat in bed together later about all the friends they've lost to AIDS. At one point, one of the men even refers to newspaper obituaries as "the gay man's sports page." This was at the height of the epidemic, of course, and while it was good that the couple was portrayed in a light that was neither silly or derogatory, the sadly casual way they considered the AIDS epidemic was actually quite terrifying for me. I don't know how it was received by others maybe that scene raised awareness about the virus itself, and the plight facing gay men at the time. But looking back, I think fear of (and misinformation about) AIDS was one of many factors that might've kept guys like me closeted for years. (Photo Credit: Webtvwire.com)
  • 1992: Matt Fielding from Melrose Place 3 of 10
    1992: Matt Fielding from Melrose Place
    Everyone was excited by the debut of Melrose Place in 1992. It was going to be like 90210 for grown-ups! Attractive people who could have sex without worrying about curfew or math finals! And the L.A. apartment complex had a token gay resident: Matt Fielding (Doug Savant) was out, benignly handsome, and fully accepted by his neighbors. Unfortunately, his storylines took up maybe .00005% of the show's airtime over the course of seven years. I remember that during a season finale at the show's popularity zenith, there was a brief scene where Matt actually kissed another dude except that we didn't get to see the actual kiss. We saw two male heads leaning in, and then…. CUT. At the time, the public was not cool with seeing gay guys engage in a liplock, even on a show where people were making out every five minutes. And I can remember thinking at the time, Wow, people must really be grossed out by gay people if they can't even show a quick peck by the pool. I'd love to believe that we've evolved since then… but I'm not sure. When gay people to kiss on network TV today, it's still with about as much passion as a couple of great-great-grandparents. (Photo Credit: Thebacklot.com)
  • 1994: Pedro Zamora from The Real World 4 of 10
    1994: Pedro Zamora from The Real World
    For its 1994 third season, MTV's The Real World cast a gay housemate as one of the seven strangers charged with the responsibility of "getting real." The show had included gay people before, but Pedro Zamora was more open about his sexuality and the fact that he had AIDS. During the season, Pedro would clash with his loudmouthed roommate Puck, experience a dip in his health, and marry his partner. One month after the season finale, Pedro passed away. How did he affect our view of gay people? He humanized them. He gave the gay community a face. He helped created a fresh wave of support for gay rights. And an entire generation of young TV watchers mourned him when he died. (Photo Credit: mtv.com)
  • 1994: Carol and Susan from Friends 5 of 10
    1994: Carol and Susan from Friends
    I was a big fan of Friends. Not only did the NBC sitcom portray a healthy lesbian couple consistently over it's ten-year run -- Ross' ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) and her wife Susan (Jessica Hecht) -- it did so with elegance and empathy. The Triangle of Awkwardness between Ross, Carol and Susan never lessened over the years, but there was something so deeply valuable about how Ross found himself balancing the discomfort of watching his wife become a happy, healthy lesbian, and wishing her happiness with her partner. Not to mention how all of Ross' friends were there when he was feeling less charitable, to remind him that love is love. Sweet stuff. Well-played, Friends. (Photo Credit: fanpop.com)
  • 1997: Ellen Morgan from Ellen 6 of 10
    1997:  Ellen Morgan from Ellen
    I loved Ellen Degeneres as a stand-up comic long before her sitcom debuted in the mid-90s. And I liked her show too it was definitely chuckleworthy, if not uproarious. The actual uproar came when, after several seasons of slyly hinting about her orientation, Ellen came out (both the character and the performer). It's probably telling that the show came to an abrupt end one season later, but I remember that Ellen's big news was as warmly welcomed as it was unsurprising. I may not have been grappling with my own sexual orientation in an active way yet, but I remember being comforted by how quickly the public seemed to embrace her news. Years later, Ellen's sexuality is the last thing people care about I recently mentioned to my daughter that the woman who played our favorite blue Tang fish Dorry is gay, and her response was, "That's awesome!" (Photo Credit: sodahead.com)
  • 1998: Jack McFarland from Will & Grace 7 of 10
    1998: Jack McFarland from Will & Grace
    I've always been sort of torn when it comes to Will & Grace. A funny show, for sure. But the portrayal of main gays Will and Jack always sort of bugged me. Jack especially, in all his cartoonish jazz-hands glory. Was his gay buffoonery funny? Yes. I can't deny that. Did it reinforce every gay stereotype under the sun? Totally. Do I know some guys who are exactly like him? Sure, but those guys are also human beings with amazing qualities beyond just Fabulousness. They're smart, they're strong, and they're courageous. I'm sure if I went back and watched W & G again, I'd probably see that Jack was portrayed in many dimensions, as a fully-realized person. If I'd paid more attention back then, maybe I would've felt a little more confident about coming out myself. (Photo Credit: fanpop.com)
  • 2009: Kurt Hummel from Glee 8 of 10
    2009: Kurt Hummel from Glee
    I can't honestly say I'm a gigantic fan of Glee, but that's only because the show's writing seems a bit inconsistent to me. The aspect of the show that I think is pretty damn beautiful is its portrayal of fresh-faced gay high schooler Kurt (Chris Colfer). Kurt struggling with his own coming out process during the show's first two years, and viewers followed him as he went from lip syncing to Beyoncé in his basement, to helping his dad come to terms with his sexuality, to dealing with a homophobic bully, to his first dreamy boyfriend, to high school graduation. Colfer portrayed the character with startling vibrance through all the adolescent struggles of coming out. There's a good chance that I found Colfer's performance to be so powerful because… well, this was right around the time I was actively dealing with my own coming out process. Regardless of Glee's more Velveeta qualities, there were a few Kurt episodes that got some real tears out of me. (Photo Credit: glee.wikia.com)
  • 2009: Mitch and Cameron from Modern Family 9 of 10
    2009: Mitch and Cameron from Modern Family
    I don't watch this show as often as I used to, but I still appreciate what it's accomplished. I love the warmth and the charm of this complicated suburban family, each unit of which has its own eccentricity. Representing Gayville? Mitch and Cam (Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) who are sweetly domestic and, as parents, deal with all the same issues as their straight relatives. I think Modern Family has done more to help illustrate the normalcy of gay relationships than most other shows attempting to do the same. (At least two other sitcoms were introduced this season alone that attempted to bottle Mitch and Cam's magic they didn't even make it to sweeps.) For many, these two are America's Favorite Gay Couple, next to Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka. And in parts of the country where homosexuality is still viewed as something odd, Mitch and Cam make great Gay Rights diplomats. (Photo Credit: sodahead.com)
  • 2013: Stef and Lena from The Fosters 10 of 10
    2013: Stef and Lena from The Fosters
    You probably haven't heard of this show yet. It's debuting June 3rd on ABC Family, the good folks who are in fact sponsoring this week's post. I was given an advance screener of this hour-long drama about a lesbian couple who are the parents of a growing brood of kids, only one of whom has a biological link to one of the moms. I like the show, and I hope it holds onto a spot among the network's other family-focused-yet-surprisingly-adult-in-theme programs. I wasn't too wrapped up in the storylines for the kids; but t I did like seeing how police officer Stef and vice-principal Lena (played by Teri Polo and Sheri Saum) portray the parents, women who love their children, love each other… and are really tired at the end of a busy day. Just like everyone. It would be nice if The Fosters lasts, especially on a network that seems invested in giving audiences so many different, legit versions of the American family. (Photo Credit: abcfamly.com)

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