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American Television, Drama  
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Despite a steady increase in the number of "big screen" characters and queerly-themed movies, the overt presence of gays and lesbians on the American small screen has been (and continues to be) far more limited. As Suzanna Danuta Walters has explained, while film has long dealt with gay subjects (albeit in often stereotyped or "tragic" ways), television's explicitly family-centric format appeared to mandate that glbtq persons were simply not a part of families that made up "typical" family audiences.

After all, Walters continues, the intense intimacy and centrality of television in the personal space of family life provides a particular type of viewing experience that is fundamentally distinct from the relative anonymity of movie theaters.

Not surprisingly, this family-centrism is displayed most prominently in programs shown by the five broadcast television networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, The CW, and Fox. These networks have historically been reticent about tackling homosexuality in its multifarious forms, preferring instead to leave these programming decisions to the proliferating number of cable networks.

Still, long before the advent of cable, broadcast networks were tentatively exploring homosexuality by vicariously inserting into dramatic television series stereotypically gay characters.


Early Representations

From 1968 to 1974, as Edward Alwood has explained, 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 high-pitched voices. Further, as Kylo-Patrick R. Hart has noted, a 1973 episode of ABC's prime-time series Marcus Welby, M.D. portrayed homosexuality as a serious illness that subjects gay men to unfulfilling lives, even though this view was strongly challenged that same year by the American Psychiatric Association.

In the face of these stereotyped representations, however, the 1970s also saw the rise of TV movies or MOWs (the broadcast industry slang for "movie of the week") that portrayed homosexuals in a more positive light. These made-for-television movies, promoted as special "events," were specifically themed to address controversial subject matters that otherwise would not be seen in regular programming.

The first TV movie to deal with gay subject matter was ABC's 1972 drama, That Certain Summer, which explored a teenage boy's reaction to finding out that his father is gay. That Certain Summer starred Hal Holbrook as the father and Martin Sheen as his lover, and it garnered much critical acclaim, including a Best Supporting Actor Emmy award for Scott Jacoby, who played the teenage son.

In 1978 lesbian love was the subject of NBC's A Question of Love. Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander starred in the poignant story of a lesbian mother and her lover, whose "dirty secret" is discovered by Rowlands' ex-husband. He initiates legal proceedings against the pair, and an ugly custody battle ensues.

Another type of battle ensued in ABC's 1985 drama Consenting Adult, starring Marlo Thomas and Martin Sheen. Thomas and Sheen portrayed parents trying desperately and, in Sheen's case, unsuccessfully, to deal with their son Jeff's (Barry Tubb) nascent homosexuality.

The Age of AIDS

With the emergence of AIDS on the national landscape, the television landscape changed to accommodate its presence.

In 1985, NBC broadcast the landmark TV movie An Early Frost, featuring Aidan Quinn as Michael Pierson, an aspiring lawyer and closeted gay man who, unknown to his family, lives with his lover Peter (D. W. Moffett). Michael not only discovers that Peter has been unfaithful to him but, because of this infidelity, Michael has been infected with the AIDS virus.

This discovery threatens to tear apart not only his relationship with Peter but with his family as well. As Rodney Buxton has explained, the fragile veneer of the Pierson family stability bursts apart when Michael learns he has AIDS, exposing all the resentments that various family members had repressed.

Paradoxically, An Early Frost was, in spite of drawing respectable viewing audience ratings, a victim of its own success. Many advertisers believed the subject matter was either too controversial or too depressing. Further AIDS-related TV movie projects were also shelved because of the perception that An Early Frost had effectively addressed the issue for network television audiences.

In 1986, however, subscriber network Showtime premiered its adaptation of William M. Hoffman's highly regarded Broadway play As Is. Although Kylo-Patrick R. Hart has remarked that As Is is structurally less complex than its predecessor, An Early Frost, nevertheless its graphically honest depictions of AIDS served a profoundly educational purpose. Not only did As Is dispel several popular misconceptions about the disease, such as methods of contraction through mere physical contact or by air, it also drew attention to the diversity of AIDS sufferers.

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