This is what "gay television" has become in the past 15 years — and how it all began

This is what "gay television" has become in the past 15 years — and how it all began
Jack Plunkett
Jack Plunkett

Monday night, a network aired the third season premiere of a drama featuring two lesbian characters. This was followed by the debut of a reality show about two teens coming to terms with their trans parents. The network wasn't HBO, nor was it Showtime. It wasn't a niche network like Logo or a prestige powerhouse like AMC.

The network was ABC Family. The shows were The Fosters and Becoming Us. And they represent how LGBTQ television has grown in the past 15 years. Finally, "gay TV" feels as diverse as the groups it represents. 

Yet none of it would be possible were it not for the shows that laid the groundwork years ago — one of which, Queer as Folk, reunited its creators and key cast members Friday at the ATX Television Festival for a fond remembrance of how it all came to be. Their talk revealed that strange as it may seem, their show and the family-oriented offerings mentioned above aren't as disparate as they appear.

'Queer as Folk' stars Peter Paige, Gale Harold, Randy Harrison and Robert GantSource: Jack Plunkett
'Queer as Folk' stars Peter Paige, Gale Harold, Randy Harrison and Robert Gant  Jack Plunkett

A decade and a half ago, Showtime aired the first season of Queer as Folk, an adaptation of an English series that featured a full cast of gay and lesbian characters. Depicting sex and sexuality quite frankly, the show was in very limited company as "gay TV," practically only in league with NBC's far more chaste Will and Grace.

"Back then, it was a big issue in the business," star Peter Paige (Emmett) said Friday of explicit gay programming. It was such an issue that, according to creator Daniel Lipman, none of the major talent agencies would allow their actors to come in and read for the show.

Luckily, Queer as Folk quickly found the right cast. Some of them, like out actor Randy Harrison (Justin), dove in headfirst. "I knew what it would be, socially and politically," he said at Friday's panel. "[But] I was very young, very naive and had no representation."

Others had questions, albeit not hesitations, like series lead Gale Harold (Brian). As a straight man, he wanted to make sure he was getting it right for the gay men and women he knew. "My primary concern was not to let down friends I'd grown up with," Harold said.

Source: Tumblr
Source: Tumblr

After its cast was set, Queer as Folk went about producing 83 episodes of honest, gripping programming about a group of gay men and women. It quickly courted backlash in the gay community, thanks to its raw sexual content and characters designed not to ignore cliches, but embrace them.

"We stopped apologizing for stereotypes. We embraced them and we surpassed them," Paige said at the panel.

Fans of HBO's Looking or Fox's Glee might recognize such backlash. Both shows earned their share of detractors in their combined eight seasons. The former was called boring by multiple gay commentators. The latter was widely criticized, some of it for its treatment of lead gay character Kurt Hummel. (Admittedly, most of its hate came from simply not being good.)

Such divisiveness may be inevitable when writing "gay TV." As series co-star Robert Gant (Ben) said in an interview with Mic after the panel, shows like Queer as Folk will always run the risk of depicting a side of gay culture that people of said culture don't want out there.

"To air all of this stuff, to air the dirty laundry which we squeakily keep from the world, was really scary to people. Some people had very negative reactions," Gant said. "People were dragging along their own struggles."

'Queer as Folk' stars Randy Harrison and Robert GantSource: Jack Plunkett
'Queer as Folk' stars Randy Harrison and Robert Gant  Jack Plunkett

Paige himself would know well. The onetime Queer as Folk star is now on the other side of the camera as a creator and writer. He's one of the brains behind The Fosters, the Jennifer Lopez-executive-produced show featuring an interracial lesbian couple and their family of children — adopted, biological and foster — that also held a panel at ATX Television Festival. Paige and the show suffered backlash for a plot development last season that saw two 13-year-old boys share a chaste kiss. As Paige noted after the panel, even some gay media was wary.

"There is nothing about this kiss that we haven't seen before, except that it's two boys," Paige told Mic. "Let's as a community stop apologizing for the fact that gay adults start out as gay kids. It's OK to acknowledge. It doesn't make us pedophiles."

"We stopped apologizing for stereotypes," Paige said of Queer as Folk. "We embraced them and we surpassed them."

Yet as Paige noted, "99.95%" of the reaction was positive. It's nearly impossible to doubt the intentions of a show like The Fosters, which counts among its cast said lesbian interracial couple, plus gay teens and a trans male, among men and women of a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.

"Believe it or not, we don't pick apart the alphabet soup" of LGBTQ when casting, Paige told Mic. "It's just, we have the privilege of having the support of a network that's incredibly open and a writers room that's really diverse."

Source: Mic/Jack Plunkett
Source: Mic/Jack Plunkett

Today, LGBTQ programming is extraordinarily diverse. There's scripted fare like MTV's Faking It, plus streaming favorites like Amazon's Transparent and Netflix's Orange Is the New Black. The current crop of LGBTQ-focused shows feature the true rainbow: lesbian, bisexual, trans and gay characters. There are non-white queer men and women on shows like Empire. The most recent winner of RuPaul's Drag Race, Violet Chachki, is genderqueer

Not only that, but these shows feature diverse kinds of families. There's the families of The Fosters and Becoming Us, which live up to ABC Family's onetime slogan, "A new kind of family." There are the drag sisters of Drag Race and the Litchfield Penitentiary clan of OINTB. Even Modern Family, which looks positively Puritan compared to some of these shows, shows a gay family on the same level as an interracial May-December romance and the traditional nuclear family unit.

Representation: You're swimming in it.

It's all part and parcel of Queer as Folk's legacy. That show may not have been able to represent the entirety of LGBTQ culture in just 83 episodes, but it and Will and Grace broke through the queer ceiling to make television what it is today. They each depicted their casts not just as friends, but as a greater collective. They were the original new kinds of families. Their diversity helped to make this golden age of television even more colorful.

"In order to carve out of all the chatter ... creatives had to take more risks," Paige said of the change in tides. "It just created this amazing opportunity. Look at the diversity of what's been on TV for the past 20 years. It's kind of unfathomable."