April 30 marks the 20th anniversary of “The Puppy Episode” on Ellen, when Ellen Morgan (played by Ellen DeGeneres) came out as gay to her friends—and millions of viewers at home. It was a watershed moment for pop culture—I was watching at a bar and the roar of cheers was deafening.
It was the biggest queer moment on prime time, but it wasn’t the first. Below, we look back at notable LGBT moments on TV before Ellen.
“The Corner Bar” (1972)The Corner Bar/ABC
This short-lived ABC sitcom revolved around patrons of Grant’s Toomb, including flamboyant set designer Peter Panama, played by Vincent Schiavelli (above, upper right). Panama was what’s believed to be TV’s first recurring gay character.
“An American Family” (1973)An American Family/PBS
Decades before the dawn of reality TV, PBS launched this 12-episode series chronicling life with the Loud family, who let a film crew into their suburban California home for seven months. Older son Lance Loud was openly gay and not afraid to show the world—he tried on his sisters’ makeup, moved to Chelsea district and even took his mom to a drag show at La Mama. Lance became a wellknown gay celebrity, and even started writing for the Advocate.
In 2001, dying of AIDS, Lance asked producers to chronicle his final days as a sort of bookend to American Family. Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family aired on PBS in 2003.
“All in The Family” (1975)CBS
Men have been wearing dresses on TV since the days of Milton Berle but it wasn’t until CBS’ All in the Family that America saw an actual drag queen on the small screen. Female impersonator Beverly LaSalle (Lori Shannon) debuted in “Archie the Hero,” where Archie performs CPR on her after she passes out in his cab.
The character proved so popular that Beverly returned in “Beverly Rides Again,” to invite Archie and Edith out to dinner. While the storyline was played for laugh, the character was never the butt of the joke.
Beverly’s third and final appearance was her most poignant: In “Edith’s Crisis Of Faith” she invites the Bunkers to her Carnegie Hall debut. Before the performance, though, Beverly (dressed as a man) and Archie’s son-in-law, Mike, are gay-bashed. Mike escapes, but Beverly’s injuries prove fatal. The senseless death of her friend causes Edith to suffer a crisis of faith.
“Hot l Baltimore” (1975)Hot L Baltimore/ABC
The same year Beverly sashayed into Archie Bunker’s house, ABC launched this short-lived comedy, adapted from a Lanford Wilson play of the same name. It was also produced by Norman Lear but never took off like his other properties.
It featured an George and Gordon, an older gay couple living in a shoddy hotel, along with a prostitute and an undocumented immigrant. ABC ran a “mature content” disclaimer before each episode, a network first. (ABC’s Baltimore affiliate refused to carry the show) Hot l Baltimore was cancelled after its initial 13 episode run.
In this spoof of daytime dramas, Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas, the first gay main character on an American television series. Over the course of the show’s run, Jodie considers gender-reassignment surgery so he can marry his boyfriend, attempts suicide when he gets dumped, has a one-night stand with a woman (who gets pregnant and leaves him at the altar), tries dating a lesbian, proposes to a woman (again), and emerges from hypnotherapy believing that he is a 90-year-old Jewish man named Julius Kassendorf.
“The Jeffersons” (1977)CBS
In an episode entitled “Once a Friend,” George is eager to reconnect with his old Navy buddy, Eddie. But he’s stunned when he discovers Eddie has had gender-confirmation surgery and is now Edie. The episode is handled with some tact, though via a typical sitcom misunderstanding, Louise is convinced George is having an affair with this strange new woman.
ABC’s nighttime soap cornered the market on the “confused bisexual” trope: While oil heir Stephen Carrington identified as gay, he had relationships with both men and women throughout the series. He was also played by two actors: First Al Corley and then Jack Coleman.
While Steven was primarily defined by his sexuality (and struggles against it), he was generally depicted as the show’s moral center, as opposed to his scheming, wicked family.
“An Early Frost”
Aidan Quinn played a Chicago attorney who goes home to tell his parents he’s gay and HIV-positive in this made-for TV-movie on NBC. It marks the first major film, on the big screen or small, that dealt with the subject of AIDS.
The ABC drama broke new ground when it showed two men (out actors David Marshall Grant and Peter Frechette) in bed together. They were only talking, but the episode sparked huge controversy, with even though Grant and Frechette were forbidden to touch each other during the scene.
A number of advertisers pulled their commercials and ABC withdrew the episode from rotation for rebroadcast.
“L.A. Law” (1992)L.A. Law/NBC
The first kiss between two people of the same sex airs in prime time when bisexual C.J. (Amanda Donohoe) plants one on straight Abby. Unsurprisingly advertisers threatened to pull their ads over the scene.
Thirty million people tuned in to see Mariel Hemingway kiss Roseanne in an episode ABC threatened not to air. Nancy, played by Sandra Bernhard, who comes out as a lesbian during season five.
Real-life lesbian Sandra Bernhard played Roseanne’s friend Nancy, who dated both Hemingway and Morgan Fairchild. Roseanne’s old boss Leon (Martin Mull) eventually married his boyfriend, Scott (Mull’s longtime comedy partner Fred Willard.)
“The Real World: New York” (1992)The Real World/MTV
The first season of MTV’s reality TV show set the tone with “seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped.” Among those strangers was Norm Korpi, a well-adjusted openly gay man who goes on dates, enjoys life, and even flirts with gay-baiting roomie Eric Nies.
In 1994, when the show moved to San Francisco, audiences were introduced to Pedro Zamora, an HIV-positive man whose activism and struggle moved millions.
“Melrose Place” (1992)Melrose Place/Fox
Much was made of Doug Savant’s Matt, an openly gay man, being part of the nighttime’s soap’s core cast. But his romantic life was practically nonexistent. The camera would usually cut away from even the chastest of kisses, leading viewers to think gay sex involved a lot of table lamps and roaring fires.
“My So-Called Life” (1994)my so-called life/ABC
In its one lone season, this ABC drama from Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz garnered a massive cult following and had a huge impact on the television landscape. Wilson Cruz played Rickie Vasquez—who, at 15, was the first unambiguous depiction of a queer teen on network TV. Rickie wears eyeliner and flashy clothes, and feels more at home in the girls’ bathroom with Rayanne and Angela.
After suffering abuse at the hands of his uncle, he moves in with the Chases, and is then fostered by gay English teacher Richard Katimski.
The über-popular sitcom brought a teensy bit of nuance to pop culture, as Ross’ ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) married girlfriend Susan (Jessica Hecht) and the three shared parental duties of Carol and Ross’ son, Ben.