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A History of LGBTQ Characters on TV

Julie Sprankles is a freelance writer living in the storied city of Charleston, SC. When she isn't slinging sass for SheKnows, she enjoys watching campy SyFy creature features (Pirahnaconda, anyone?), trolling the internet for dance work...

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LGBTQ on TV

Getty Images; Ashley Britton/SheKnows.com
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LGBTQ on TV

TV today boasts a great deal of diversity, but such hasn't always been the case for the LGBTQ community. A look back over time reveals just how long it took network television to represent our entire society in a way that is realistic and authentic. And while some networks remain ahead of the curve (holla, ABC!), there's still progress to be made. From early '70s sitcoms to Shondaland, follow the history of LGBTQ characters on TV.

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'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' 1972

CBS
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'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' 1972

Phyllis' brother was refreshingly revealed as gay in a way that portrayed it as a nonissue. 

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'That Certain Summer,' 1972

ABC
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'That Certain Summer,' 1972

Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook starred in this groundbreaking TV movie about finding love again.

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'An American Family,' 1973

PBS
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'An American Family,' 1973

In the first reality TV series, Lance Loud came out to the nation in this family documentary.

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'All In The Family,' 1975

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'All In The Family,' 1975

Female impersonator Beverly LaSalle (Lori Shannon) was the first drag queen to debut on the small screen. 

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'Hot L Baltimore,' 1975

ABC
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'Hot L Baltimore,' 1975

This ABC comedy's older gay couple, George and Gordon, earned the series a mature content disclaimer.

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'Soap,' 1977

ABC
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'Soap,' 1977

In this spoof series, Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas — the first gay main character on an American TV show.

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'The Jeffersons,' 1977

CBS
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'The Jeffersons,' 1977

In a risque (for the time) arc, it's revealed George's old Navy buddy, Eddie, had gender confirmation surgery. 

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'All My Children,' 1983

ABC
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'All My Children,' 1983

As All My Children's Dr. Lynn Carson, Donna Pescow played the first gay character on a soap opera. 

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'Dynasty,' 1984

ABC
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'Dynasty,' 1984

This soapy series explored bisexuality with oil heir Stephen Carrington. 

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'An Early Frost,' 1985

NBC
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'An Early Frost,' 1985

This poignant film about a gay attorney who is HIV-positive was the first film to address AIDS on screen. 

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'Thirtysomething,' 1985

ABC
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'Thirtysomething,' 1985

This ABC drama broke new ground and sparked major controversy for showing two men the morning after. 

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'Golden Girls,' 1991

NBC
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'Golden Girls,' 1991

While we didn't see the wedding, Blanche's brother tells his sis he is marrying his "special" friend, Doug. 

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'Roc,' 1991

Fox
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'Roc,' 1991

When Roc found out his uncle was gay and had a partner, it led to TV's first gay wedding. 

 

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'L.A. Law,' 1992

NBC
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'L.A. Law,' 1992

L.A. Law laid claim to the first lesbian kiss on primetime when bisexual C.J. kissed straight Abby.

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'One Life to Live,' 1992

ABC
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'One Life to Live,' 1992

In one of his earlier roles, Ryan Phillippe starred as Billy Douglas, the first gay teen on daytime TV.

 

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'Melrose Place,' 1992

Fox
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'Melrose Place,' 1992

Although much was made of an openly gay character on this nighttime soap, Matt had few romantic scenes.

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'Roseanne,' 1992

ABC
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'Roseanne,' 1992

Nancy, who dated Mariel Hemingway's character, was one of the first openly lesbian TV characters.

 

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'My So-Called Life,' 1994

ABC
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'My So-Called Life,' 1994

Enrique "Rickie" Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) was primetime's first unambiguous queer teen depiction.

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'Friends,' 1996

NBC
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'Friends,' 1996

Primetime's first lesbian wedding came by way of Ross' ex-wife Carol and her partner Susan.

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'Ellen,' 1997

ABC
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'Ellen,' 1997

Upon coming out, Ellen became the first openly lesbian actress playing an openly lesbian character on TV.

 

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'Relativity,' 1997

ABC
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'Relativity,' 1997

Lisa Edelstein's Rhonda brought us the first romantic (read: open-mouth) kiss between women on primetime TV. 

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'Will & Grace,' 1998

NBC
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'Will & Grace,' 1998

Will, Jack, Karen... all sexuality was embraced in this hit show (which is coming back, squeee!). 

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'Dawson's Creek,' 1999

The WB
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'Dawson's Creek,' 1999

TV's first passionate gay kiss didn't happen until Jack (Kerr Smith) hit the scene in '99. 

 

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'The L Word,' 2004

Showtime
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'The L Word,' 2004

This popular Showtime drama didn't just feature lesbian couples; it centered on their lives.

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'Romy & Michele: In the Beginning,' 2005

ABC Family
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'Romy & Michele: In the Beginning,' 2005

It may have bombed, but this prequel featured the first openly trans women playing a trans character on TV.

 

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'As the World Turns,' 2007

Primetime
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'As the World Turns,' 2007

A bit late to the party, daytime TV featured its first gay kiss in 2007 between Luke and Noah.

 

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'All My Children,' 2009

ABC
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'All My Children,' 2009

Friends had the first lesbian wedding on primetime, but All My Children earned that honor for daytime.

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'Parks and Recreation,' 2009

NBC
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'Parks and Recreation,' 2009

Parks & Rec covered new territory with April's bisexual boyfriend Ben and his boyfriend Derek.

 

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'Good Luck Charlie,' 2014

Disney Channel
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'Good Luck Charlie,' 2014

The first same-sex couple shown on a children's network came during a playdate on Good Luck Charlie.

 

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'Orange Is the New Black,' 2014

Netflix
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'Orange Is the New Black,' 2014

For her role as Sophia Burset, Laverne Cox became the first openly trans person to be nominated for an Emmy.

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'Transparent,' 2014

Amazon
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'Transparent,' 2014

Amazon continues to shine for its dramedy starring Jeffrey Tambor as a dad who comes out as transgender.

 

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'How to Get Away with Murder,' 2014

ABC
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'How to Get Away with Murder,' 2014

A rarity on primetime TV, HTGAWM's premiere featured a super-steamy sex scene between two men. 

 

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'Nashville,' 2014

CMT
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'Nashville,' 2014

Nashville ventured into unchartered territory when country music singer Will came out as gay. 

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'Doubt,' 2015

CBS
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'Doubt,' 2015

When Laverne Cox joined the Doubt cast, it heralded the portrayal of TV's first transgender attorney. 

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'Grace and Frankie,' 2015

Netflix
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'Grace and Frankie,' 2015

Through longtime lovers Robert and Sol, this series poignantly (and hilariously) explores coming out later in life.

 

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'Empire,' 2016

Fox
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'Empire,' 2016

Despite push-back, Empire charged forward with a racy sex scene between hip-hop star Jamal and his producer.

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'The Loud House,' 2016

Nickelodeon
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'The Loud House,' 2016

Clyde McBride's parents, Harold and Howard, are the first same-sex married couple featured in a cartoon.

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