After the Stonewall uprising in 1969, television producers began including LGBTQ-themed storylines in their popular series, with dialogue and characters that now often seem pretty cringe-inducing. But the shows did reflect changing social mores and broke new ground in American entertainment, a trend that continues today. Here are 17 significant moments in LGBTQ+ TV from the past five decades.
1. All in the Family // 1971
In 1971, the Norman Lear-produced CBS sitcom All In the Family became the first sitcom to feature a gay character—a macho type named Steve, who shocked Archie Bunker by coming out—in the season 1 episode “Judging Books by Covers.” Unfortunately, it was Steve’s only appearance in the series.
2. That Certain Summer // 1972
The made-for-TV movie That Certain Summer starred Hal Holbrook (who initially turned the part down, as he explains in the interview above) and Martin Sheen as a couple in love. It was lauded for its sympathetic portrayal of gay men, though Sheen recalled some people were worried it would damage his career. It aired on ABC and won the Golden Globe for Best Television Movie.
3. An American Family // 1973
The PBS series An American Family, credited with being the first reality show, followed the day-to-day doings of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. Openly gay son Lance became a breakout star of the series and an icon for paving the way for gay representation in mainstream television.
4. The Jeffersons // 1977
The Jeffersons, a spinoff of All In the Family that aired on CBS, is often credited with featuring the first transgender character on a sitcom. In the episode “Once a Friend,” George Jefferson’s old Navy buddy Eddie revealed that she was a woman named Edie.
5. Soap // 1977
Billy Crystal portrayed Jodie Dallas, one of American TV's first gay dads, in the campy ABC comedy Soap. The character displeased both religious moralists and gay rights activists, but his character became important in the TV landscape. Soap also featured one of the first lesbian characters on a sitcom: Jodie’s friend Alice, played by Randee Heller.
6. One Life to Live // 1992
Ryan Philippe played TV’s first openly gay teenager on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live, where his character came out to his parents in a dramatic scene involving practically the whole town of Llanview.
7. My So-Called Life // 1994
Though it aired for just a single season, My So-Called Life left an indelible mark as the high school drama tackled homophobia in a storyline that featured Wilson Cruz playing Rickie Vasquez, the first openly gay teen in primetime.
8. The Real World // 1994
As reality TV was becoming more and more dominant, MTV’s The Real World introduced Pedro Zamora, a gay activist who was also HIV positive, during its The Real World: San Francisco season. Zamora proved to be a powerful character on the series, creating the sort of “teachable moments” that resonated with young viewers. He died of AIDS-related complications just hours after the season concluded.
9. Roseanne // 1994
ABC fed the culture wars when it announced a forthcoming scene in its hit sitcom Roseanne, in which Roseanne Barr and Mariel Hemingway shared a kiss at a gay bar. More than 30 million people tuned in to the episode “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
10. Ellen // 1997
Ellen DeGeneres—playing a character based on herself in her ABC sitcom Ellen—came out in “The Puppy Episode,” a culture-shifting moment that went way beyond television. (DeGeneres herself came out a few weeks before the episode aired.) A 2015 Variety poll found that DeGeneres did more to sway Americans’ attitudes about gay rights than any other celebrity.
11. Queer as Folk // 1999/2000
Queer as Folk premiered in the UK, then on Showtime in the U.S. as an American remake of the original Russell T. Davies series. It was the first hour-long drama to feature a cast of gay characters dealing with same-sex marriage, gay adoption, cruising, and other timely topics. In 2022, the original series was reimagined for a new generation on Peacock; it was canceled after one season.
12. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy // 2003
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (later shortened to just Queer Eye) premiered on Bravo in 2003 and changed the reality TV landscape. In each episode, its five gay lifestyle experts made over a less-than-chic guy or girl.
13. RuPaul’s Drag Race // 2009
RuPaul's Drag Race debuted on Logo TV and became an instant hit, thanks to the cutthroat competition to find America’s “next drag superstar” and its sassy host.
14. Orange Is the New Black // 2014
Laverne Cox became first openly trans person nominated for an Emmy Award for acting for her work on the original Netflix drama Orange Is the New Black, which addressed a number of LGBTQ issues.
15. Billions // 2017
Asia Kate Dillon took on a role as an intern named Taylor on Showtime’s Billions beginning in season 2. The actor, who was best known at the time for their role as Brandy Epps in Orange is the New Black, became one of television’s first major non-binary characters—and the first non-binary person to play one.
16. Transparent // 2018
Amazon’s original series Transparent broke new ground for trans actors with its cast, though critics complained that its star, Jeffrey Tambor, was a straight male actor playing a newly out trans woman. Some of the actors also accused Tambor of sexual harassment, though he denied it.
17. Black Lightning // 2018
The CW’s Black Lightning included TV’s first Black lesbian superhero, played by Nafessa Williams, in its universe.