3 TV Shows That Helped Make Gay Rights Cool

The same-sex marriage debate reached the Supreme Court on Tuesday, with proponents arguing that marriage equality is a constitutional right. There are, of course, those who staunchly oppose it; proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 will make their case before the SCOTUS justices on Wednesday. However, despite the fact that basic human rights are still up for debate in 2013, society’s reaction to the LGBT community, and perception of same-sex marriage, has greatly improved over the past several years. In large part, we have television to thank for that. After all, if even Vice President Joe Biden admits that shows such as Will & Grace have had a massive impact on viewers’ perceptions of homosexuality, then you know it’s got to be true.

For the most part, shows with story lines that incorporate LGBT characters have a positive impact on viewers’ understanding of gay rights; a recent study found that 27 percent of television viewers claim that the presence of gay couples on TV shows has made them more in favor of same-sex marriage. While gay characters were rare on primetime TV just a couple of decades ago (and when they were present, they often led to the pulling of sponsors and “explicit” content warnings), these characters are now mainstream, and it is almost shocking to not see at least one gay character on a popular show. Therefore, we must pay homage to the shows that have been particularly influential in the fight for gay rights.

1. Roseanne

Throughout its nine-season run, Roseanne was one of the most popular series on primetime television. It was a pioneer in confronting numerous social issues such as social class, domestic violence, race, and women’s rights, but the show’s most noteworthy and controversial subject matter was homosexuality. Actress Roseanne Barr, who played the show’s title character, had a real-life brother and sister, both of whom were gay, so she pushed for Roseanne to include LGBT characters. "My show seeks to portray various slices of real life," she said, "and homosexuals are a reality." Though it was not the first same-sex kiss on network television (L.A. Law showed a kiss between two female lawyers in 1991), Roseanne’s kiss with a lesbian character in a season six episode was the most influential. At first, ABC threatened not to air the episode but eventually it did, and to the highest viewership of the season; nearly 40 million people tuned in. Unlike L.A. Law, which admittedly included the kiss as a ratings ploy and did not develop the lesbian relationship, Roseanne continuously featured LGBT characters. Roseanne even assists her boss in planning his same-sex wedding.

2. Ellen

Ellen DeGeneres has famously supported gay rights since she came out on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997. That same year, her sitcom Ellen featured “The Puppy Episode,” in which the title character, somewhat humorously by accidentally announcing it over an airport loudspeaker, came out as a lesbian. This scene, much like the kiss on Roseanne, was controversial at the time, as it was the first show to depict the main character coming out as gay – and yet, it too was one of the most highly-rated episodes of the series. Since the ending in 1998, DeGeneres has gone on to host her own talk show, in which she regularly discusses her personal life (she wed wife Portia de Rossi in 2008, pre-Prop 8) and champions marriage equality. 

3. Modern Family

Modern Family is currently one of the most popular shows on primetime television, and even President Obama has confessed his love for the sitcom. A supporter of same-sex marriage, Obama may particularly appreciate the show’s entertaining and lovable – and most importantly, relatable – gay couple, Cam and Mitchell. Premiering in 2009, the show was one of the first – and certainly one of the most popular – shows to depict a gay couple successfully raising a child; the ABC drama Brothers & Sisters also featured a gay couple going through the adoption process. With such central characters being a gay couple raising a child, Modern Family has paved the way for shows such as The New Normal. The entire storyline of The New Normal centers on a gay couple searching for a surrogate so that they can fulfill their dreams of being parents.