20 Years of GLAAD: Keeping Watch on Images

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

GLAAD serves as a watchdog over all media, including print, film, theater and the Internet, but it must focus much of its attention on television. TV is where LGBT characterizations-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-are probably seen by the largest audience.

The organization monitors televised images in entertainment, news and sports. Its report for the 2005-06 season finds that fewer than 2 percent of the characters on broadcast network series are gay, lesbian or bisexual; there are no regular transgender parts. In all there were 16 series regular and recurring roles on 14 out of 110 scripted series on broadcast TV last fall.

Additionally, several midseason series feature LGBT characters, including ABC’s “Crumbs,” in which Fred Savage, best known for sharing the angst of the suburban teen as squirrel-cheeked Kevin Arnold on “The Wonder Years,” will play a gay character.

Although much attention is focused on the success of NBC’s “Will & Grace” and Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word,” the total number of LGBT characters on TV has actually dipped from a few years ago. With “Will & Grace” scheduled to end its eight-season run in May and “Folk” already departed, it appears that mainstream TV is becoming straighter.

Still, thanks in large part to reality series such as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” LGBT images can be found on the small screen. But GLAAD

is quick to point out that the overwhelming majority of LGBT characters on TV are white gay males.

Twenty years ago, when GLAAD was born, LGBT images were mostly limited to occasional TV movies, a few episodes of regular series and “Brothers,” a comedy series on Showtime, which was a relatively new network.

“We have certainly seen the growth in LGBT representation on television over the past 20 years,” said Damon Romine, GLAAD’s entertainment media director.

Mr. Romine noted that there has been “a transformation of TV in general,” citing cable and satellite networks that cater to the LGBT audience and reality programming on broadcast and cable.

“We’ve got tremendous opportunities in these new areas,” he said. “While there is a challenge of decreasing images on broadcast networks, today we can see representations of gays and lesbians in relationships with their partners, and that’s something we just weren’t seeing 20 years ago.”

“Things have changed far faster than I might have expected,” said Stephen Tropiano, author of “The Prime Time Closet,” an exploration of LGBT characters on the small screen.

“I never would have thought 20 years ago there would be ‘Will & Grace,'” said Mr. Tropiano, who has no connection with GLAAD. “I also think one of the biggest changes is the age range of the gay and lesbian characters. Surely 20 years ago you never would have seen gay teenagers. I think seeing Pedro Zamora on [MTV’s] ‘The Real World’ in the ’90s had a lot to do with that. He was gay with no apologies.”

Today LGBT characters are seen in environments where they were not seen before. When HBO’s “Deadwood” returns for its third season this year it will add a gay male.

Historically, regular gay characters on scripted broadcast network series pre-date GLAAD, though perhaps by not much.

Billy Crystal is often credited with portraying the first “out” gay character on a prime-time series with “Soap” on ABC in 1977. But in fact his was just the first regular gay character on a successful series. ABC’s short-lived “The Corner Bar” (1971) featured actor Vincent Schiavelli as designer Peter Panama. The profession may have been stereotypical, but the open sexuality had rarely been seen before in TV episodics.

NBC’s short-lived medical series “Heartbeat” (1988) not only offered the first regular lesbian character, portrayed by Gail Strickland, but also featured the first lesbian partnership, as the character was in a relationship. Gina Hecht had the recurring role of the partner of Ms. Strickland’s character.

“There are shows today where sexuality is really not an issue,” Mr. Tropiano said. “On ‘ER’ the Kerry character [Laura Innes] went through the process of coming to terms with her sexuality, and although one character once called her a ‘dyke’ in the heat of an argument, for the most part her sexuality did not matter in the workplace.”

Of course, there are programs in which sexuality is the key to the story line, and others in which representations are not as integrated into the show. GLAAD monitors those situations as well.

GLAAD has a team covering all aspects of television, including national and regional news. “Depending on the issue, we’ll determine the course of action,” Mr. Romine said.

After the fall schedules were announced last spring, GLAAD received an advance copy of the pilot for the new Fox series “The War at Home” and discovered that a character perceived as being gay, though not identified as such, was called a “fag.”

GLAAD met with the network and the writers and producers to discuss the use of the word and suggest changes. “The War at Home” pilot premiered without the epithet, and GLAAD began a further dialogue with the producers. Subsequent episodes of the series touch upon gay and transgender youth issues.

“There is still much to be done on TV,” Mr. Romine said. “There is a misconception, both in Hollywood and society, that LGBT people are everywhere on TV. They see the success of ‘Will & Grace’ and three LGBT networks and think the battle’s been won.”