Portrayal of the GLBTQ Community in Television: Pre, Mid, and Post-Stonewall

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold,
From the lightening in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.
— Edgar Allen Poe, Alone

As an industry, television continues to grow everyday. New programs are developed, previous ones expanded, new characters added, shows get cancelled and the process begins again – as it does every year. Since the dawn of television in the early 20th century it has continually become more progressive as a medium. Every year its rules and regulations change, as does the public’s perception of what is considered acceptable to be on television, going hand-in-hand with the public’s changing perception of the world around them in general.

In the early days of the television boom during the 1940s and 50s, homosexual people were not viewed in a positive way, receiving extreme criticism and even verbal and physical abuse from almost everyone, including police, teachers and even their friends and family. Homosexuality was even listed as a mental disorder until it was removed by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 (UC–Davis, Facts About Homosexuality and Mental Health). Harassment and arrest were very common for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) community until the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which is seen as the spark to the modern GLBTQ movement for equal rights.

As the years passed the general public became more tolerant of members of the GLBTQ community. While there are still many cases of homophobia around today, things have become better since television’s beginning. Since the Stonewall Riots we’ve seen an increase of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community being portrayed in Television. The GLBTQ community has slowly become less alone.

In 1969, before the riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, there was little to no portrayal of the GLBTQ community on the small screen. What was shown portrayed the community in an extremely negative light, with program titles such as Homosexuals and the Problems They Present (Tropiano 269), and Homosexuals Who Stalk and Molest Our Children (Tropiano 3). While many of these programs were only shown on local stations, in 1967, CBS became the first national network to air a program about homosexuality, titled CBS Reports: The Homosexuals. This hour long documentary featured gay men hidden in dark shadows and by large plants to hide their identity, while two anti-homosexual psychologists, Charles Socarides and Irving Bieber, conducted berating interviews. This has since been described as “the single most destructive hour of anti-gay propaganda in our nation’s history” (Besen 129).

Mediums outside of television portrayed homosexuals as monsters. In films such as Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter, the monster (or gay character) dies in the end, and those who side with the monster meet an untimely demise as well. For example, in the 1931 Universal Studios interpretation of Frankenstein, the only character who takes the monster in is burned to death in his home by enraged villagers. Contemporary Queer readings of these films point out these analogies to the views held by American society and greatly represented the heterosexual public’s views and fear of the GLBTQ community at the time (Morris).

“Friday, June 27, 1969 found the world mourning the death of [film and television star] Judy Garland. Some have wondered what effect the gay icon’s funeral, which took place in Manhattan, had on the events that would soon transpire.”
-Andrew Matzner. “Stonewall Riots.” GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture

In the early morning of June 28, 1969 police began to raid the Stonewall Inn as they would any other gay bar, on any other night. But for some reason, as the police were forcing the bar patrons out onto the street, riots broke out. “As to who threw the first punch, accounts are contradictory. Some say it was a drag queen, while others claim it was a butch lesbian, who initially defied the police,” (Matzner 1). Violence spread throughout the crowd and hundreds of Greenwich Village residents began pouring into the streets to watch, join, and help. The violence escalated quickly as the GLBTQ people in the crowd began throwing coins, stones and bottles at the police. At one point during the riot, it was noted that lighter fluid was poured through the windows of the bar as members of the crowd tried to burn the bar to the ground, which at the time, had the police officers barricaded inside (Matzner 2).

Although this has been stated as being the biggest turning point for the GLBTQ community, little of the event was covered on television due to the state of the news at the time and for fear of the “Big 3” networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) losing advertising and viewers.
However, post-Stonewall Riots television began changing drastically. In the early days of homosexuality being represented on the small screen, stereotypically gay characters were inserted into dramatic television shows (Tipton 1). Post-Stonewall life was much different in many aspects for the Gay Community. They were slowly becoming more tolerated and were molding into the rest of society. Gay characters started being represented on TV more and more, starting in the 1970s, albeit as extremely stereotypical.

“The weekend of June 27, 1969 was a turning point in the struggle for GLBTQ equality. Gay and lesbian activism certainly existed prior to this time, but the confrontations between police and demonstrators at the Stonewall Inn catalyzed the movement, and inspired gay men and lesbians to move their cause to entirely new heights, utilizing entirely new tactics. However, the birth of the Gay Pride Movement was not without controversy, and there continues to be debates about what actually occurred during the riots. Nevertheless, the Stonewall “Rebellion” indisputably holds an honored, if contentious, place in GLBTQ mythology and history” (Matzner 1).

After Stonewall, more and more gay characters started to appear in television shows: “From 1968 to 1974 homosexuals on television were recognizable in programs such as Kojak, M*A*S*H, Police Woman, and Hawaii Five-O because of their routine representation as limp-wristed, effeminate drag queens who walked with a swish and talked in a high-pitched voice” (Tipton 1).  Showing the first, and at that time, only gay characters on television as extremely stereotypical, definitely helped these stereotypes grow and stick with the LGBTQ community. However, this also has to e recognized a first step towards what we see on television today.

“The 16th annual Where We Are on TV report, released by GLAAD, found that 2.9 percent of actors appearing regularly on prime-time network drama and comedy series in the 2011-12 season will portray gay, lesbian or bisexual characters” (Moore 1). While 2.9 percent might not seem like much, it is certainly an increase since the early days of television, and even television around, and soon after Stonewall. Nineteen of the 650 recurring characters on television today are portrayed as homosexual (Moore 1). Small, but indeed still an increase. With GLBTQ characters appearing weekly on television series such as Glee and True Blood, many more members of the GLBTQ community will surely continue to feel less alone.

Works Cited

Besen, Wayne R. Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. New York: Harrington Park, 2003. Print.

Matzner, Andrew. “Stonewall Riots.” GLTBQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Glbtq, Inc., 12 Oct. 2006. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.  <http://glbtq.com/social-sciences/stonewall_riots.html>

Moore, Frazier. “GLAAD: Gay Characters On Network TV Falls In 2011.” Huffington Post. AOL, Inc., 28 Sept. 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/28/glaad-gay-characters-on-network-tv_n_984643.html>

Morris, Gary. Monsters and Drag Queens and Dykes — Oh My! (Queer Horror: Decoding Universal’s Monsters). <http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/23/universalhorror.php>

Poe, Edgar A. “Alone.” The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.

Tipton, Nathan G. “American Television, Drama.” GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Glbtq, Inc., 10 Jan. 2006. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://glbtq.com/arts/am_tv_drama.html>

Tropiano, Stephen. The Prime Time Closet: a History of Gays and Lesbians on TV. New York, NY: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2002. Print.

University of California – Davis. Facts About Homosexuality and Mental Health. <http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/facts_mental_health.html>