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Who was the first openly gay character on TV?

Bea Mitchell July 28, 2017

These days, LGBT characters are featured regularly on small screens (although we wouldn’t mind seeing some more).

Just look at Orange is the New Black, which has been pretty much unparalleled in featuring same-sex relationships and sex scenes.

Back in 1998, Will & Grace paved the way for shows with LGBT themes – and its successors include Modern Family, The L Word, Sense8, Transparent, American Horror Story, Class and Empire, to name just a few.

Orange is the New Black cast (Netflix)
Orange is the New Black cast (Netflix)

LGBT characters haven’t always been on our boxes, though – it wasn’t until the ’70s that gay roles were first written for TV – and even then, they were often minor or incidental, rather than leading.

In our search to find the first gay TV character, it has become evident that there have been several important milestones, not to mention quite a lot of confusion.

Here goes…

The first gay character on a TV show

Often credited as the first LGBT person on primetime TV was a character called Steve, played by Philip Carey, in 1971’s All in the Family.

However, Steve only appears in one episode – ‘Judging Books by Covers’ – in which Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) makes wrongheaded assumptions about a friend of a friend, only to discover that his own friend Steve is, indeed, gay.

The first trans TV character

Similarly, in 1977, Norman Lear’s CBS sitcom The Jeffersons featured a trans character, but only in one episode, called ‘Once a Friend’.

The instalment depicts George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) as he learns that his old Army buddy Eddie is now a transgender woman named Edie (Veronica Redd).

First gay couple in a TV movie

Many feel that 1972 TV movie That Certain Summer was the first to deal sympathetically with gay characters.

It follows Hal Holbrook’s Doug Salter and Martin Sheen’s Gary McClain as the former attempts to hide his life partner from his teenage son Nick (Scott Jacoby), before finally explaining their relationship to him.

First gay couple in a TV show

Another Norman Lear sitcom called ‘Hot L Baltimore’ has earned recognition for depicting the first gay couple in a recurring TV show, in the shape of 50-something George and Gordon, played by Lee Bergere and Henry Calvert respectively.

The most well-known early gay character on TV

1977 sitcom Soap is sometimes thought to have featured the first recurring gay character, Jodie Dallas, played by Billy Crystal – but he had a predecessor, who we’ll get to shortly.

Crystal stars as a gay dad – who fathered a child after a one-night stand – having an affair with a famous quarterback and contemplating gender-reassignment surgery. He amassed considerable media attention for his portrayal.

The actual first recurring gay character on TV

While Jodie Dallas is more recognised, it was 1972 when the first central, recurring LGBT character hit screens in the shape of Peter Panama, played by Vincent Schiavelli.

Schiavelli starred in ABC sitcom The Corner Bar, which followed the lives of drinkers at Grant’s Tomb tavern – including flamboyant set designer Peter.

Also starring Gabriel Dell as Harry Grant, the owner of the Manhattan bar, the show’s first season aired ten episodes in 1972. A second series aired in 1973, but with a different cast.

According to the Alternative Channels website, many of the jokes in the show were homophobic, prompting the Gay Activists Alliance, an early gay rights organisation, to protest.

Producer Allen King agreed to “redirect” the show and changed the cast.

Rich Wandel – then president of GAA – called Peter “the worst stereotype of a gay person I’ve ever seen”.

More: entertainment, gay characters, LGBT characters, Television, US

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