Steve (All in the Family)
All the way back in 1971, All in the Family was just getting started, and people thought it was hilarious. It was also the first one to feature a gay man. Steve, a long-time friend of Archie and an ex-football player, represented what Archie thought was a “real man’s man.” One day, the two sat down at Kelcy’s Bar, and Archie confronts Steve about his orientation.
Steve admits that he’s gay, leaving Archie dumbfounded. This was around the same time that the first Pride Parades began, and the Gay Rights Movements were getting off the ground. Despite being a minor character in the series, Steve broke huge ground for LGBTQ+ characters and people. He certainly paved the way for future characters on this list.
Lance Loud (An American Family)
An American Family was the first major reality TV show to ever air in the United States. It followed the Loud family, but none made more of an impact than Lance. Lance had a major effect on younger audiences because he was an openly gay person on TV. Some even say that he (as well as the show in general) made hating the LGBTQ community “uncool.”
Lance Loud was vibrant, happy, and free, giving a new look on an otherwise unknown lifestyle. Soon, he would become a gay icon. Years later, PBS revisited the Loud family, and Lance came out as being HIV-positive. Sadly, he would pass away that same year in 2001 from liver failure due to hepatitis C and HIV.
Russell and Chris (Roc)
Roc didn’t beat around the bush. The series had the first same-sex married ever debuted on television during the ’90s. Eight episodes in, Roc introduces Russell, who is set to marry his male lover, Chris. The family members deal with it all in their own way until they decide to host the wedding at their home.
Activism for same-sex marriages was on the cusp of getting off the ground, and Roc had a huge impact on it. Until this point, it was unheard of to have an LGBTQ wedding, and it helped pave the way for future on-screen marriages between same-sex couples.
Nowadays, we all know that Ellen DeGeneres is part of the LGBTQ+ community and very outspoken. That wasn’t the case in the ’90s. In Ellen’s TV Show by the same name, she portrayed a bookstore owner in her ’30s, just trying to navigate life. There were hints about her sexuality, but nothing definitive until Ellen came out in 1997.
Soon after this, Ellen DeGeneres came out in real life. Religious groups and advertisers threatened to boycott the show, but Ellen didn’t let it stop her. Soon after that, the show was canceled, fans claiming it was due to the controversy. Regardless of Ellen’s reputation now, this move changed the world forever.
Sophia Burset (Orange Is the New Black)
Trans performers playing trans characters in TV shows and movies are few and far between, unfortunately. While there were certainly trans actors and actresses on television before Laverne Cox, she was the first to receive an Emmy nomination officially. Sophia Burset showed what it was like in the life of a trans woman as she tries to reconnect with her family and those around her.
Since Orange is the New Black and her Emmy nomination, Cox’s career has taken off. Not only is she representing members of the trans community more in the media, she’s an outspoken advocate. Her goal (through her portrayal of Sophia Burset) was to “highlight the humanity of trans people and lift up trans peoples’ stories.”
Jodie Dallas (Soap)
Soap was a sitcom produced by the creator of Golden Girls, and it had a strong cast. Although we wouldn’t know it at the time, it also featured Billy Crystal in his first role, and it was a big one. Crystal played Jodie Dallas, an openly gay man who was having a love affair with a famous quarterback. The show had issues concerning the LGBTQ community, but it did do one thing right.
Jodie Dallas’s storyline as a father was one thing the show succeeded in portraying. Men will tell you that representation of single fathers are already tough in media (and in real life), so having a gay man portray a father in the ’70s was revolutionary. Not only was it one of the most touching storylines in the whole show, but during a custody battle, Dallas actually won custody of his child. This was another revolutionary thing at the time.
Roseanne (the person and the show) has a way of making headlines, whether good or bad. We’re going to focus on one major barrier-breaking moment: the kiss between Sharon and Roseanne. It was unexpected for most, and it caused a huge controversy. It certainly wasn’t the first same-sex kiss on TV (and not even the first lesbian kiss).
Roseanne was a popular TV show with millions of viewers, so ABC threatened not to air the episode, but Roseanne Barr demanded otherwise. Hemingway, the actress who played Sharon, mentioned in an interview that people came up to her and thanked her for the episode because it meant a lot to see representation on themselves in the entertainment industry.
Susan and Carol (Friends)
Five years after the first gay wedding on TV, Susan and Carol were set to wed on Friends. Their union would be the first lesbian wedding ever televised, but that wasn’t the only notable thing about this episode. This wedding was officiated by Candace Gingrich, a gay rights activist and sibling of Newt Gingrich (the conservative Speaker of the House).
That certainly made news, although there wasn’t a huge focus on the actual wedding itself. Despite being the highest-rated program for a week – and garnering 31.6 million views – it didn’t come without controversy. NBC received complaints about airing the episode while GLAAD brought light to censorship by some network affiliates refusing to air the episode.
Billy Douglas (One Life to Live)
One Life to Live was a popular soap opera for a long time, from 1968 to 2012. That’s certainly something to brag about. Another thing to brag about was Billy Douglas, played by Ryan Phillippe. Douglas was the first openly gay teen character in a TV series. Like we’ve said before, representation matters.
Douglas portrayed what it was like being a gay teenager, including coming out to his best friend and being kicked out of his house for being gay. It was certainly hard to watch at times because it pulled at your heartstrings. Thankfully, Douglas ended up with a happy ending, leaving to go to Yale University.
Will Truman (Will & Grace)
Will & Grace had one of the biggest audiences out there with a cast comprising mostly of members of the LGBTQ community. It was even featured in a Smithsonian LGBTQ collection for its groundbreaking achievements. The original had eight seasons before being renewed in 2017 for additional episodes.
The show featured two gay men, one bisexual woman, and one straight woman as they navigate their 30s – not an easy age. During an interview with Meet the Press, VP Biden stated that Will & Grace “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.” That’s a pretty big compliment!
Ethan and Jack (Dawson’s Creek)
In the 2000s, during the season three finale of Dawson’s Creek, Ethan and Jack shared what went down in history as the first “passionate” kiss between two men. Considering LGBTQ+ representation was still lacking at this time, this was a big leap forward. The actor who portrayed Jack stated he felt a "huge" responsibility for playing the character authentically.
No doubt that the kiss was intense. Thanks to this display of love, future shows were able to do a lot more and have more gay characters. The writer who worked on Dawson’s Creek went on to write for the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and, most recently, Riverdale.
Kurt and Blaine, Brittany and Santana (Glee)
Glee was certainly one of the biggest LGBTQ+ shows out there. It constantly broke barriers through various characters. Kurt, Blaine, Brittany, and Santana were some of the most impactful. Kurt went from battling hatred and himself to loving his identity. Eventually, he married Blaine. Santana and Brittany were two other extremely impactful characters.
Santana and Brittany struggled with their identity but eventually found love in each other. Both couples provided a look into the lives of teens as they navigate the confusing and emotional journey of coming to age. One of the most memorable episodes was when both couples married each other. It became one of the best same-sex weddings we’ve ever seen.
Cam and Mitchell (Modern Family)
Modern Family did something no show had done before – it featured a gay household on primetime television. Cam and Mitchell are two gay men who adopted their daughter Lilly in the pilot. Audiences and critics loved the show alike. Needless to say, the couple made serious strides as a gay couple and gay parents.
Modern Family consistently brought millions of viewers per week, to watch Cam and Mitchell during their ups and downs. They have to face the common issues of a suburban family, but they also had to work on things specific to gay couples. Reflecting LGBTQ+ parents goes a long way toward representing an otherwise marginalized group of people.
Carmelita Rainer (Dirty Sexy Money)
Dirty Sexy Money may be a distant memory, but Candis Cayne’s portrayal of Carmelita Rainer is far from that. Cayne is the first transgender actress to portray a recurring transgender character on primetime television – certainly an achievement to be proud of!
What made Rainer truly unique was that her gender identity was major to her character, but it wasn’t her defining feature. Patrick loved her for her. During an interview with KITV news, Cayne stated, “my whole point to this is to not only tell trans children that they’re okay but their parents that this is just something that some human beings are.”
Keith and David (Six Feet Under)
When Six Feet Under debuted in 2001, LGBTQ characters existed, but they were mostly used as a novelty. Some shows had made major groundbreaking moments, but same-sex couples were certainly uncommon in TV series. Six Feet Under changed that by introducing David and Keith. These two would normalize relationships between two men in a way that no other show had done thus far.
In the beginning, David struggled with coming out, but audiences could see what was going on between him and Keith. David also battled his religious beliefs, too, claiming he wanted to be “normal.” It’s a story that many LGBTQ+ teens find familiar. Keith was also a three-dimensional character, showing abuse he suffered as a child. Overall, their relationship was multilayered and showed that it was the same as any other relationship. It had its ups and downs, but that was just a part of love.
Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced audiences to three lesbian characters, but none had more of an impact than Willow Rosenberg. Fans absolutely adored her in the show, and that didn’t change when she came out in the fourth season.
Following this, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first to have a long-term lesbian relationship on U.S. TV. Tara and Willow officially got together, and by season five, the two were smooching on screen. The two didn’t have the happy ending fans wanted, but it humanized lesbian relationships, showing the ups and downs all couples go through.
Omar Little (The Wire)
Omar Little did a lot for gay Black men in more ways than one. First, he simply existed. The writers created him, and David Simon really brought him to life. The biggest impact Omar had wasn’t because he was gay, however. The character’s focus wasn’t important in the plotline. In fact, he had one of the best stories in the whole show – acting as a drug-trade Robin Hood.
Simon stated in an interview, “Yeah, he’s gay, but that’s not the thing you’re gonna remember him for if you meet him down an alley…I didn’t want it to define him.” Omar had some of the show’s most dramatic scenes and blew audiences away.
The Whole Cast of Queer as Folk
Queer as Folk is a tough one. The whole show made leaps and bounds, but it’s still difficult to define one character that made the most impact. This is why we included the whole cast. Each member spoke to a different person who watched the show, representing a wide variety of people in the LGBTQ+ community.
The show addressed many issues that affected the LGBTQ+ community, including discrimination, STDs (and the AIDS crisis), same-sex marriage, and love. All of the characters were complex and unique, something we really hadn’t seen thus far on television. It would be impossible to name one character as the one that broke the most barriers.
Captain Raymond Holt (Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
Being a member of the LGBTQ is still a touchy subject as far as the police force is concerned, and that’s brought to life through Captain Raymond Holt. Throughout the show, audiences hear about the discrimination Captain Holt faced as a gay Black man. Still, he didn’t let it stop him as he achieved his dream of being Captain of a NYPD precinct.
Captain Holt also directly subverted stereotypes that have been portrayed in the media thus far regarding gay men. The character was never dramatic, didn’t have a great out-of-uniform fashion sense, and had zero knowledge of pop culture. Overall, Captain Holt broke barriers and was a police officer (and Captain) to look up to.
Taylor Mason (Billions)
One of the more recent developments is in the show Billions. Until now, there haven’t been many (if any) portrayals of non-binary people in the media...until Taylor Mason. Taylor Mason is played by Asia Kate Dillion, who is also non-binary. It was important for Dillion that Taylor Mason be a star character. An interview with NBC News explains exactly why this representation is important and broke barriers.
Dillion explains, “I would have never wanted to play Taylor if it had been a one-off episode, and in that episode, it would have been all about their gender identity. If it hadn’t been a fully fleshed-out character, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it, because that representation is old hat, frankly, and not interesting. Non-binary people are multi-dimensional human beings.”