A New Normal
An impassioned panel reflects on primetime television's growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
How did Jeff Perry learn that his character on ABC's Scandal — Cyrus Beene, none other than the White House chief of staff — was gay? "He opened the script," recounted Dan Bucatinsky, who plays Beene's spouse, political journalist James Novak. "And it said, husband."
In September Bucatinsky won a Primetime Emmy as outstanding guest actor in a drama series for his role on Scandal, and his acceptance speech was memorable: he acknowledged the U.S. Supreme Court for enabling him to thank both his television husband (Perry) and his real-life husband (screenwriter Don Roos).
Despite the cultural significance of this TV marriage, Perry's character evolved simply and naturally, Bucatinsky explained at an October 28 event at the Television Academy, "Ten Years After The Prime Time Closet." Creator–executive producer Shonda Rhimes wanted the role to reflect some aspects of her own life, he said. Rhimes had adopted a child, for example; she had Beene and Novak do the same.
Bucatinsky was one of a panel of impassioned performers and network executives to explore television's relationship with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer-identified (LGBTQ) community. The event, at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in the NoHo Arts District, marked the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV by Stephen Tropiano, who was the evening's moderator.
Joining Tropiano and Bucatinsky were actors Laverne Cox (Netflix's Orange Is the New Black), Andrew Rannells (HBO's Girls and NBC's The New Normal); Sherri Saum (ABC Family's The Fosters), Amber Tamblyn (CBS's Two and a Half Men) and Wilson Cruz, the national spokesperson for GLAAD. Also taking part were Paul Colichman, CEO of Here Media, and Christy Dees, vice-president of development, Bravo Networks.
Participants noted that politically and culturally, society is moving toward greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community. While an increasing number of states are legalizing gay marriage, "Shows like Glee, Modern Family, Orange Is the New Black, Grey's Anatomy, even The Real Housewives of Orange County have woven LGBT characters organically into their storylines," event coproducer Howard Meltzer, CSA, said in opening remarks. "Television has not only reflected these changes in social attitudes — it's had an important role in bringing that about."
Citing a recent GLAAD report, Cruz declared: "Last year was a watershed year," with the largest number of LGBTQ characters seen on television to date. "We can really see a correlation between the numbers of characters and the level of acceptance," added the actor, who played troubled gay teen Rickie Vasquez on the 1994–95 series My So-Called Life.
Rannells, who played a gay TV producer on last season's The New Normal, noted: "I'd been out since I was eighteen, and there was no way to go back in [when I started in television]." The New Normal, a reflection of creator Ryan Murphy's own life, regularly showed Rannells and his partner, played by Justin Bartha, in bed, as Scandal now does with the characters played by Perry and Bucatinsky.
Sherri Saum, who plays high school vice-president Lena Adams on The Fosters opposite Teri Polo, is frequently asked how she prepared to portray a lesbian. "[I thought,] 'Do I walk differently?'" she said. "I threw that out the window, and decided to love her like I love my husband, and love the kids like they were my own. Somehow, it's working."
The Twitter response to this realistic relationship — the couple married on the mid-season finale — has been gratifying, she added; one viewer wrote saying the show provided the courage to come out to family.
On Two and a Half Men, Tamblyn's character, Jenny Harper, "has had her way with both genders," the actress said. "She's trying to find her way." Tamblyn mentioned that the show had just shot an episode in which her fictional uncle, Alan (Jon Cryer), dates a transgender woman. "The way they handled it was very real. I was very proud of that episode."
Transgender actress Cox has a recurring role on Orange Is the New Black, playing prison inmate Sophia Burset. "I'm really honored and excited to be a vessel for this," she said. "So many transgender people have written to me. A transgender playing a transgender — it's so powerful for the audience to see themselves. It validates their experience."
But ten years after The Prime Time Closet, "transgender characters have not made that same progress [as gays and lesbians]," she added. "We're still often portrayed as schizophrenics or criminals."
That likely won't happen at Here Media, whose Here TV — a premium cable channel whose first ad slogan was "No apologies" — has 10 million viewers. "We are designed to serve our audience," CEO Colichman said. "We're not making gay TV for straight people." The network will premiere its first scripted comedy next year, From Here! On OUT, about a straight actor cast in a gay role who must pretend to be gay to keep his job.
At Bravo, Dees explained, the cable network that used to be known for its arts programming was changed radically by its 2003-07 makeover reality show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. "That was a really special show," she said. "It resonated with a lot of people and turned the network around. It dealt with food and fashion — we pulled from that" for subsequent programming. Now, the network's target audience is educated, upscale women and gay men. "We refer to them as our Will and Graces."
While the LGBTQ community has achieved great strides on television, there is still progress to be made, panelists agreed. Still, Cruz was visibly happy at Tamblyn's reveal of her show's transgender dating storyline. "You just made my day!" he exclaimed.
Producing the event were Daniel Evans, chair of the Academy's diversity committee, and committee member Howard Meltzer, CSA; both are also Academy governors, Evans for children's programming and Meltzer for casting directors.