The portrayal of the LGBT community on TV has come a long way since 1963, when NBC’s “Espionage” became the first drama series to use the word homosexual in a script.
On Wednesday night, the Paley Center’s L.A. Benefit Gala offered a look back at the last 50 years of programming and gathered small screen stars including Portia de Rossi, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Eric Stonestreet to celebrate TV’s impact on LGBT equality. The fundraising event, held at the Skirball Cultural Center and sponsored by Honey Maid, chronicled the history of LGBT images in television, from dramas and comedies to TV movies, miniseries and sports.
De Rossi, who was accompanied on the red carpet by her mother-in-law Betty DeGeneres, discussed her own personal struggles and growth as an actress and member of the LGBT community.
“Ellen just texted me before we came out tonight and she reminded me that it wasn’t too many years ago where I wouldn’t have been seen dead at an event like this,” the “Scandal” actress told Variety. “Even when I was on ‘Ally McBeal’ I was very, very closeted and very afraid to live my truth. It means a lot to me personally to see how far we’ve come in the last 50 years. It’s kind of wonderful.”
Inside the Skirball Center’s Guerin Pavilion, legendary TV scribe and producer Norman Lear kicked things off by introducing a series of clips of LGBT characters throughout the last 50 years, including a scene from his hit CBS skein “All in the Family,” which featured the first openly gay character in a sitcom.
“Those images led us to this very moment in time – a moment filled with possibility, a moment we can all be proud of,” Lear noted.
De Rossi and DeGeneres then took the stage to acknowledge the strides that have been made in the portrayal of LGBT characters in drama series, including shows like FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” NBC’s “ER” and Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word” – the first dramas on American television with storylines predominantly centered on LGBT characters. De Rossi also reminded the audience that “homosexuality was often portrayed as a problem to be overcome, but as the decades progressed more nuanced depictions of the challenges facing the LGBT community helped pave the way for groundbreaking series.”
DeGeneres called attention to several current drama series that consistently incorporate LGBT characters, such as AMC’s “Mad Men,” Shonda Rhimes’ ABC slate of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” and ABC Family’s “The Fosters.”
Though Ellen DeGeneres was not in attendance, her tremendous influence on the LGBT community was cited as a source of inspiration for many as “Modern Family” co-stars Ferguson and Stonestreet discussed her comedy series “Ellen” and her courageous decision to come out on the show and on the cover of Time magazine in April 1997.
“In doing so (DeGeneres) created a world where you can be one of TV’s most popular stars and also be authentically and totally yourself,” Stonestreet said.
The event also highlighted the evolution of TV’s depiction of LGBT athletes, and Jason Collins shared his sentiments as the first openly gay NBA player.
“This has been an amazing year for LGBT athletes,” Collins said. “I stand before you this evening as living proof that ignorance and intolerance are losing their hold on society. The world as we knew it is changing for the better and we are living in an age of possibility.”
Later in the evening, “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy presented clips of LGBT characters in TV movies and miniseries including “That Certain Summer,” “An Early Frost” and his most recent HBO production “The Normal Heart.”
“The Fosters” actress Teri Polo and Amy Landecker of Amazon’s “Transparent” introduced the final clips of the night, featuring news, documentary and reality programs such as the PBS documentary “An American Family” and MTV’s “The Real World.”
Paley Center prexy and CEO Maureen J. Reidy assured the audience that the discussion doesn’t end here and the Paley Center will offer special LGBT-themed screenings and panels in 2015.
Other guests in attendance included “The Fosters” co-creator Peter Paige, Mitzi Gaynor, Katherine Moennig, Neal Baer, former NFL player Chris Kluwe and Carson Kressley.