Flip through the channels and you might find “Looking,” a comedy series about a group of gay thirtysomethings living in San Francisco, or reruns of “Will & Grace,” the first network series with an openly gay main character. You could even land on Logo, a network that showcases all LGBT-themed programming.
But, just a generation ago, LGBT characters on television were few and far between. A new exhibit, “As Seen on TV: An Exploration of LGBT Characters: 1954-1979,” opening this week at the Stonewall Museum and Archives Wilton Manors Gallery examines the evolution that took place on America's television screens.
The exhibit, curated by Charles L. Ross, features dozens of clips from some of the most popular television series of the era. Ross, a former art director of “Architectural Digest” and “Veranda” magazines, screened hundreds of hours of clips, finally deciding to focus on the period between 1954 and 1979 and focusing on prime time programming.
“When I was starting the research, I realized if I went into the 80s, it would be just overwhelming,” he explained. “With gay liberation in the 70s, there were more and more gay characters.”
Beginning in the mid – 1950s, homosexuality in America was discussed on television primarily on local talk shows. Usually, panels made up of psychiatrists, psychologists or physicians examined the “social problem.” Later, the ongoing McCarthy hearings in the U.S. Senate not only sought to oust alleged Communists, but also to expose homosexuals as undesirable deviants. Gay or lesbian characters did not begin to appear on prime time network shows until the 1960s – and then often as killers and sociopaths in crime dramas.
Surprisingly, Ross doesn’t link the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village to the increase in LGBT characters during the 70s, so much as the nationwide controversy sparked by Anita Bryant’s campaign to overturn a Miami-Dade gay rights ordinance.
He elaborated, “Gays have always centered (our history) on Stonewall, but that was not national news at the time.”
Some of the clips assembled by Ross and his team include a 1965 “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” featuring a female nurse who is a killer, and also a man, and a 1971 episode of “All in the Family” that features the first openly gay character on network television, a former professional football player who is a friend of Archie Bunker.
Other clips come from “Sanford and Son,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” “Barney Miller,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Family.”
In the early years, gay characters were rarely, if ever, identified as LGBT. Ross also touched on the first regular gay character in a series, “Soap.” Portrayed by Billy Crystal, Jody was initially—and controversially—presented by writers as a gay man, but in later seasons, he had affairs with women and even fathered a child, confusing the issue of his sexuality with audiences.
Technical production for the exhibit was provided by Downtown Loft Studio, owned by Bruce Presley, a member of the museum’s board of directors.
“As Seen on TV: An Exploration of LGBT Characters: 1954-1979” is currently on display at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives Wilton Manors Gallery, 2157 Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors. For more information and gallery hours, go to Stonewall-Museum.org.