Glee Isn’t the First TV Show to Feature Gay Teens

Rodger StreitmatterThe Fox network has been getting lots of media buzz for showcasing the bullying that many LGBT teenagers face. Glee’s story arc featuring actor Chris Colfer should be credited with being both realistic and poignant.

At the same time, though, it’s worth pointing out that Colfer’s character, Kurt, isn’t the first LGBT teenager to appear on the small screen.

That honor goes to Billy, a character played by Ryan Phillippe almost a decade ago. It was back in 1992 that the young man came out on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live to dispel rumors that he’d been molested by a clergyman who’d been counseling him.

Part of that storyline included the lad having to deal with a father who wasn’t keen on having a son who liked boys. Among the most memorable lines were Billy saying, “I’m gay,” followedChris Colfer by the plea, “And I need you to understand that, Dad.” The father then responded, in a decidedly angry tone, “You aren’t gay. You can’t be.”

One big difference between then and now is that Phillippe’s character exited the closet and then almost immediately disappeared from the program, the writers sending the blond pretty boy off to Yale. (The real-life Phillippe ended up marrying Reese Witherspoon but then falling off the fidelity wagon and getting a divorce, while also starring in films such as Breach, Flags of Our Fathers and Crash.

Wilson CruzABC welcomed a second gay teen into TV Land two years later when Wilson Cruz, who’s gay, starred in the role of Rickie on the teen drama My So-Called Life. Rickie had a tough time, too. He initially lived with an uncle who physically abused him and eventually threw him out of the house—the uncle wasn’t on board with Rickie’s penchant for wearing eyeliner. The boy ended up in an abandoned warehouse filled with homeless teens.

The critics loved My So-Called Life because it tackled any number of substantive issues that American teens have to deal with, but the show didn’t draw as many viewers as ABC would have liked. The program was canceled after a single season.

Probably the first gay teen who can accurately be described as having a long life on the small screen was Jack on Dawson’s Creek, played by the strikingly handsome Kerr Smith. The series on theKerr Smith WB network focused on the sexual awakening of a cluster of teenagers who talked like they’d all earned advanced college degrees.

Jack arrived on the scene in 1999, in the program’s second season—Smith was 26 at the time, though his character was supposed to be 16. The boy started dating the female lead in the program, but that storyline was soon disrupted by one involving a cruel English teacher who shoved Jack out of the closet by forcing the boy to read a revealing poem out loud in class.

Season three was a huge one for the character. First he joined the high school football team—TV’s first gay jock!—and then he locked lips with another boy—TV’s first boy-on-boy kiss! Jack’s buss truly did push the small screen across an important threshold as it came a full six years before milquetoast Will finally puckered up for a romantic kiss with another man in Will & Grace’s eighth and final season.

Jack remained a central character on Dawson’s Creek until the program left the air in 2003, after six seasons. His storylines took him through various experiences, including how his college fraternity brothers reacted to having a queer boy in the house. By the series finale, Jack was all grown up, teaching in his old high school and in a relationship—the two men were raising a daughter.

(I can’t seem to leave Jack without pointing out the irony in the fact that the female lead that the in-the-closet character initially dated was played by Katie Holmes, the actress who’s now married, in real life, to one of the most frequent subjects of is-he-or-isn’t-he gay rumors of all time: Tom Cruise.)

In concert with the media’s tendency to pay more attention to gay men than to lesbians, the first queer girl didn’t find a place on TV until 2000—some eight years after Billy on One Life to Live had broken the gay-teen ice—on the WB program Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Alyson HanniganOnce Willow finally appeared, though, there were some big pluses about the storyline involving her character, played by Alyson Hannigan. One positive aspect of the portrayal was that she sort of drifted casually out of the closet. That is, she didn’t make a big, sensationalized Look at me! splash like her gay-boy predecessors had. Another plus was that, once Willow arrived on the scene, she stayed around for two and a half years in a loving relationship with Tara, played by Amber Benson.

On the downside, the early stage of the romance was either muted or metaphorical, with magic seeming to substitute for sex between the two girls. Things changed when the program moved to the UPN network in 2001. Willow and Tara were then frequently seen holding hands, stroking each other’s hair and occasionally exchanging a gentle kiss. By 2002, they were even shown in bed together. Go, girls!

Regrettably, the storyline soon took a nose dive when an evil nerd who meant to murder Buffy shot and killed Tara instead. Willow, propelled by blood-red rage and vengeance, then tortured and killed the nerd before moving on to a demonic plot to destroy the world. (In a desperate attempt on my part to find a happy ending, I’ll point out that actress Alyson Hannigan has gone on to enjoy a successful run on the long-running CBS hit How I Met Your Mother.)

Another fictional gay teen who deserves at least a nod is Justin from Showtime’s Queer as Folk. He was 17 and in high school when the series premiered in 2000, and the character—playedRandy Harrison by gay actor Randy Harrison—was shown struggling through a long list of traumatic events. One day he found the words “Fags Die” painted on his locker, and another time he had to endure a fellow student calling him “queer” during class. But by far the most memorable of the incidents came when the boy had a baseball bat slammed into his head.

So, with all these other queer teens having appeared on TV in past years, why are Kurt and Glee getting so much attention now?

One relevant factor is that the bullying storyline is coinciding with the media shining a bright spotlight on the topic after a spate of teen suicides—at least six last September alone—that have been linked to instances of real-world LGBT young people being harassed. The topic has been kept alive by the “It Will Get Better” video phenomenon going viral on the Internet.

Another factor is that Glee is a major hit. The show routinely attracts an audience on the north side of 14 million viewers—compared to cable shows like Queer as Folk reaching about 1 million. What’s more, the Glee segment chosen to air after the Super Bowl was watched by 27 million viewers. Glee also took home the Golden Globe for best comedy or musical this year.

A final point that has to be mentioned is that Chris Colfer is doing a terrific job in the role. The 20-year-old gay actor not only won a Golden Globe for his performance on the show, but he brought tears to the eyes of many of us who saw and heard him finish his moving acceptance speech by saying, “To all the amazing kids who watch our show . . . who are constantly told ‘No’ . . . by bullies at school that they can’t be who they are . . . well, screw that, kids.”

So do Fox and the boy deserve all the applause they’re getting?


By Rodger Streitmatter

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