Milestones only feel monumental when you get some perspective, and you look back and see some of the tremors that started to pave the way for a seismic shift. The Supreme Court decision is a stunning victory for human rights and equality, but the big shift happened with the American people over the past few years, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
I feel privileged to work in a business where we can advance the political agenda just because we tell stories. No soapbox, no demonstrations, no voting. If a story moves you, the message gets sent, and the consciousness changes. Sometimes slowly, but it happens.
Over the past 40 years, the LGBT social and political agenda has been moving forward in our pop culture in many ways, especially on good old-fashioned broadcast television, which reaches everybody, everywhere. Back in the ’70s, I remember Archie Bunker dismissing “fags” as Meathead defended them. And a mesmerizing episode of “Medical Center” when Robert Reed (America’s dad on “The Brady Bunch”) played a man undergoing a sex-change operation. And in the ’80s, Aaron Spelling putting the first regular gay character in a drama series with “Dynasty’s” Steven Carrington. And NBC airing “An Early Frost” in 1985, the first television movie about the most taboo subject in America at the time, AIDS.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to put gay, lesbian and transgender characters into many shows. Mostly because of the many courageous producers and writers who want to challenge the status quo as much as they want to tell a moving story. Like Alan Ball, Jenji Kohan, Ryan Murphy and Dick Wolf. They gave us the likes of David Fisher on “Six Feet Under,” Isabelle Hodes on “Weeds,” Bryan Collins on “The New Normal,” and Leslie Shay on “Chicago Fire,” to name only a few.
I’ve been involved in so many shows with LGBT characters there isn’t room to mention them all, though “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word” deserve special shout-outs. And I should also include the real people too, such as many openly gay contestants on “The Voice” or “America’s Got Talent.” Or reality hosts like the incomparable Jane Lynch. Or Neil Patrick Harris, a talented triple threat who just happens to be gay, and also a happily married father of two.
Blasting these LGBT images everywhere over the air can help change the world as they begin to bore into people’s minds and, more importantly, into their hearts. These people look exactly like human beings, which is the first positive step away from hatred or fear of the unknown. And to LGBT kids who are hiding in their own families, seeing these images hopefully removes a little bit of the stigma they live with every day.
But while the TV industry is forward-thinking and enormously tolerant, there also have been hiccups. LGBT storylines were no doubt toned down in the gloomy era when Rock Hudson was guest-starring on “Dynasty” and it was revealed that he was not only gay but also afflicted with AIDS. Those were tough times. In 1989, for example, on Marshall Herskowitz and Edward Zwick’s sublime “thirtysomething,” two gay characters in bed together caused advertisers to pull out. But the good news is that ABC stood strong and supported its producers.
When I was at the Fox network in 1994, though, something unnerving happened. One of our biggest hits was “Melrose Place,” created by a courageous — and gay — producer named Darren Star. One of the main characters was Matt Fielding, the “gay character,” as he was known. And in a particular episode, Matt finally had a date with another guy, and we were ready to show that he actually did have a romantic life.
Accordingly, the date ended with a kiss. But broadcast standards and sales, afraid of the proverbial “gay kiss” that would cause backlash from viewers and advertisers, wanted the scene cut. I was too low on the totem pole to win the fight, but Darren refused, and told Fox to censor him if they wanted it out. Since everyone hates the word “censorship,” the scene stayed in. But not exactly. When the two guys came together for the kiss, the screen strangely dimmed to black until the kiss was over, and then the lights came back up again. It was shocking and disheartening to think the network literally had to turn out the lights on this moment.
The battle I lost back then only motivated me to push harder as time went on, and I’m happy to say it got easier very quickly. Today, the TV landscape is filled with LGBT characters, and there is so much freedom in what they can do and say.
We’re now at a revelatory political moment that has crystallized — and expanded — the definition of marriage in our society. Does it seem insignificant to talk in the same breath about the impact of a gay or lesbian character in an episode of network television? Not to me.