Big Queer Convo: The Evolution of LGBT Identities on TV

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Openly gay actors Wilson Cruz and Peter Paige make clear that they are just fine being forever connected to the breakthrough queer television roles that launched their careers.

“I am fully aware and very happy with the fact that no matter what I do from here on out, I will always be Ricky Vasquez on My So-Called Life,” Cruz said during the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s recent Big Queer Convo event.

Paige, who co-starred for five seasons on Showtime’s Queer as Folk, concurred: “I will always be Emmett Honeycutt and I am 100 percent okay with that. It’s the best thing forever.”

Cruz and Paige took part in a lively conversation titled The New Normal: Television and the Emergence of LGBT Identities, an installment of the Center’s 50 Years of Queer Big Queer Convo series.

They were joined by lesbian writer Jennifer Hoppe-House (Grace and Frankie, Nurse Jackie) and transgender performer D’Lo (HBO’s Looking, Amazon Original Series Transparent, Netflix’s Sense 8). The panel was moderated by TV Guide’s Jim Halterman.

“There are characters who happen to be gay, with the same issues anybody else has,” Hoppe-House told the audience inside the Center’s Renberg Theatre. “We have trouble raising kids, we have martial difficulties, we have neurosis, we have aging issues.”

Relating to Uncle Arthur, Jo Polnlaczek, and The Bionic Woman

The panelists shared how there were no LGBT television characters to speak of when they were growing up. Like so many, they instinctively gravitated towards anyone vaguely queer to connect.

For Paige, it was Uncle Arthur, the “crazy mincing warlock” played by actor Paul Lynde on TV’s Bewitched.

“It is amazing what gaydar is and how it works,” Paige said. “I had no reason to know that there was some shared something between me and him. I just thought he was hilarious and special and somehow speaking for me in a medium that no one else was.”

D’Lo felt the same way about Jo Polnlaczek (played by Nancy McKeon) on the 1980s sitcom The Facts of Life.

“She was he first person I saw and thought, ‘That’s like me’” D’Lo said of Jo, who rode a motorcycle and during early seasons sparred with girls who didn’t think she was feminine enough.

For Hoppe-House, it was all about 1976-78 drama The Bionic Woman, starring Lindsay Wagner who “I did not know that I wanted to have sex with her until a few years later. TV really put me in touch with my feelings.”

Paige shared his take on why some kind of queer representation on television has always been so deeply important to LGBT people—especially when they are younger.

“For better or for worse, television is the great arbiter of truth in our culture,” he said. “We have chosen the big, black box on the wall as our reality. We know it’s fictional…but for some reason we’ve decided that’s what matters. And if you don’t see yourself up there as a part of that conversation anywhere, you’ve been told culturally you are invisible and you don’t matter.”

Being Part of Breakthrough Television Shows

Hoppe-House reminded the panel that breakthrough LGBT storylines were popping up in the mid-1970s—particularly on the sitcoms created by Norman Lear, including All in the Family, Maude, and One Day at a Time.

“There was an All in the Family episode with Beverly—who was identified as a transvestite back then—who Archie (Bunker) saves in a cab by giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” she recalled.

A few seasons later, Beverly (played by drag performer Lori Shannon) returns. In that episode, the character is killed on Christmas Eve in a gay bashing and this results in Archie’s wife, Edith having a crisis of faith.

“I think in 1977 Edith Bunker taught America how to have compassion for people who are different,” Hoppe-House said. “I remember being a little kid and having that really resonate with me.”

Cruz recently interviewed Lear for a history of LGBT television project and was told that Edith Bunker was based on his idea of Jesus.

“He wanted to show what Jesus would have felt about (LGBT people),” Cruz shared.

Paige told the audience that he came very close to landing the role of Jack on Will & Grace in 1998 that ended up going to Sean Hayes.

He recalled: “I went in to audition for producers. They said, ‘You’re amazing. We’re testing someone tomorrow. If he doesn’t get the job, you’re going in with us, you’re our next choice.”

“The next pilot season I think I tested for five series and I lost every single one of them because they said, ‘You’re too much like Sean Hayes.’ I thought, ‘Oh dear God, that was my chance. I missed it and I’m never going to work again.’”

But then came Queer as Folk in 2000 which, Paige pointed out along with Sex and the City, were the first two shows to put sexuality at the center of the storytelling.

“Will on Will & Grace wasn’t having sex and didn’t kiss anyone until years after I was getting rimmed on television,” he said. “It matters.”

After Queer as Folk, Paige went on to become co-creator and executive producer of the LGBT-inclusive show The Fosters and the new series Good Trouble.

Cruz, the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character in a leading role in a television series, has made history again as one-half of the first gay couple in the Star Trek franchise. He currently portrays Dr. Hugh Culber on Star Trek: Discovery.

“It was such an obvious void in the Star Trek universe that there had been no series regular character who was a part of the LGBT community,” Cruz pointed out. “This was supposed to be a depiction of a utopian society that we’ve progressed to.”

“I’m excited about what people are going to see in season two,” he added. “We promised an epic love story and our writers and producers are committed to this relationship and to these characters and that’s what’s exciting to me.”

More Visibility Needed for the B and T

 On Paige’s new series Good Trouble, one of the main characters is a bisexual artist played by Tommy Martinez.

“I can’t think of another bisexual male character on television right now,” Paige said. “For the L and the G we’ve moved (forward) but for the B and the T, not so much.”

D’Lo agreed and shared that he wanted to act on television and in films a lot sooner, but it was only about three years ago when he began getting roles.

“Prior to that, my whole existence was right on the line of what we call non-binary,” he shared. “I was super gender nonconforming.”

He would go in front of agents and producers and “everyone was like no doubt you are talented but they didn’t know how to place me. I know this is the case for a lot of actors who don’t fit into a binary or close to one. I just thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to have to tour for the rest of my life.’”

He finally got cast on Looking and the next year did spots on Sense8, Transparent, and Eastsiders.

“Now we have a lot of shows that are super-duper queer in all the letters,” D’Lo said. “But I don’t see trans masculine storylines still.”

“I do want to see more embedded in the storyline type of characters,” added D’Lo who wants to see trans people “raising their children, aging, living their life. That’s what I do want to see and I’m hopeful.”

The Center’s 50 Years of Queer Big Queer Convo series explores the history and impact of LGBT people on the arts and media over the last half-century in celebration of the Center’s 50th anniversary. Learn more at lalgbtcenter.org/50.

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