The TV Showrunners: Creating LGBT Characters, Telling LGBT Stories (Part One)

The year was 1977 and even without the Internet to spread the word on controversy I knew that there was something freaking people out about with this new sitcom called “Soap.” The show was supposedly racy, sexual and bawdy like no other show had been before and among its regular cast, it also had a gay character.

I was ten years old and if I knew one thing it was that I had to see this show.

But there were no VCRs, DVRs, Tivo or Hulu so I was stuck trying to watch the show when it aired without my parents knowing. That wasn’t hard since my father had a penchant for fixing TVs so we had a lot of TVs in various rooms in the house. It didn’t matter that most of them didn’t work great. I just had to see this guy Billy Crystal play Jodie Dallas and to know what the fuss was all about.

Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas in 'Soap' in 1977.

When I watched that first episode, Jodie's gayness seemed merely for laughs at first. He'd smile broadly, gently flirt to make a straight guy uncomfortable but what really stood out to me was that despite what anyone else in the world of "Soap" thought, Jodie owned being gay, which was something this boy from Indiana had no idea existed or was even possible in the world.

This was my first exposure to a gay character on television and it’s easy to see that while he wasn’t the first ever seen on television, this was a mainstream show on a mainstream network and, yes, Jodie Dallas needed to be there so we could later have TV movies like “An Early Frost” as well as regular characters on series like the Steven Carringtons, the Will Trumans, the Jack McPhees, the Emily Fields and “The Fosters.

But what is it like from the creative perspective of making television in the 21st Century? Are the studios and networks supportive of having LGBT characters in the development process of a series or episodes? Is it easier for bisexual or lesbian characters to get the green light? What about trans characters? Are there still battles being fought or can we hang it up and call it a day?

To find out, I reached out via an email questionnaire to a group of working TV showrunners gay and straight to find out what they're experiencing in 2014 in terms of incorporating LGBT characters and stories into their work. And while some of the responses make you think we're right where we need to be, others show that we've still got a way to go before having LGBT characters or stories no longer being a point of discussion or contention. They just are.

The showrunners featured here are David Goyer (“Da Vinci’s Demons,” “Constantine), Marlene King (“Pretty Little Liars), Hart Hanson (“Bones,” “Backstrom“), Caroline Dries (“The Vampire Diaries“), Jill Soloway (“Transparent,” “Six Feet Under“)Carter Covington (“Faking It“) and Bradley Bredeweg, speaking on behalf of himself and co-creator Peter Paige (“The Fosters“).

A New Attitude:

Regardless of the talk of where we are, one thing is inarguable and that’s there are clearly more LGBT characters and stories on our televisions than ever before. But why now? Why weren’t we here ten years ago when “Will & Grace” was a mainstream hit going into its sixth season and already showered with more than a few Emmy Awards?

Jill Soloway attributes the difference today to the changes in our world including technology. "Sometimes I think the Internet and global connectivity have allowed people to start coming out. The isolation people once felt is disappearing," she says. "It seems we are truly in the middle of a civil rights moment where people want to be who they are and also see themselves and their friends and families on screen."

Her new series “Transparent,” the first centered around a man (Jeffrey Tambor) revealing to his family that he’s living his life as a woman and transitioning in the process, is premiering this month on Amazon Prime and Soloway, who is straight, has a definite intention to reflect back to the world in “making a show that would make the world a safer place for my family and friends and do so with comedy, drama, love, sexuality, silliness, and a lot of entertainment value.”

The fact that marriage equality has become a regular part of the conversation in the world is also a huge factor, says Bradley Bredeweg. "TV is a reflection of our society and quite simply, we are just telling the stories of the world around us and I think audiences are excited to participate in those stories - to be a part of the movement and to be a part of history as it is being written. Quite literally."

Will & Grace: (l-r) Megan Mullally, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing and Sean Hayes (NBC)

Past series broke down a lot of barriers by showing audiences something they may not have seen before in LGBT characters and stories. “I think that shows like “Will & Grace” and “Ellen” really started a national conversation and a shift towards seeing gay people as fully-formed people that are just like everyone else,” the out Covington believes. “I really think credit has to be given to those shows, which really made history.”

Goyer believes the power these shows had were less overt and more subtle but equally effective. “I think one can also point to shows like “Will & Grace” and “Modern Family” for helping to gently change the audience’s perception,” he says. “Humor always seems to be the best ambassador.” Goyer, who is straight, also states what he sees as a responsibility for show creators. “We have an added responsibility to depict positive LGBT characters. A positive depiction of a character can often bring about more effective change in audience attitude than years of legislation. It’s something we think about a lot.”

Those earlier series definitely made it easier for a family-centric network like ABC Family (which also happens to be owned by Disney) to prominently feature one of its “Pretty Little Liars” as a lesbian. Marlene King remembers, “I believe there was some push back from conservative groups early on but our fans accepted and embraced Emily for who she is, not what she is. This millennial generation is naturally more accepting of our differences. And we are seeing that reflected in more diverse characters on television.”

Caroline Dries reminds us that we should not get too comfortable regularly seeing LGBT characters on our televisions. "I feel like it's still a big deal to see a gay character on TV but there has been a noticeable shift. I suppose that's partly due to acceptance and tolerance and partly to do with media realizing that there are a lot of gay people in their audiences."

Voices of Influence and Power: Network and Studio

Of course, no television series gets on the air without going through network and/or studio execs who have the power to say yes or no to pretty much any facet of any show including the sexual orientation of characters. How much of a challenge is it to get the green light from the men and women signing the checks to make your show?

"Any conversations with studio and network about the sexual orientation of a character have been centered around whatever story is being told," Hart Hanson, who is straight, says. "I have never been asked to make a gay character straight … or even straighter." Covington also calls himself "lucky" thus far in his dealings with his projects. Of MTV, which produces his series "Faking It" (which began with two best friends who pretend to be lesbians for the sake of popularity but one of them actually realizes she's not straight and in love with her best friend), Covington adds, "they're very open and excited about telling LGBT stories."

Goyer says of his network/studio talks, “the conversations are always evolving. I’ve personally never been asked to make an LGBT character straight. I have, however, been asked to ‘tone it down.’ I remember on “FlashForward” (which ran from 2009-2010 on ABC) we wanted to make the character of Janis (Christine Woods) a lesbian.  From the outset, that was something we wanted to do and ABC was supportive of that.” Goyer also thinks that lesbians are an “easier sell” and adds, “while I’m grateful for the support in bringing those stories to life, it’s still disappointing that gay male characters are not treated as equitably.”

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On a series like “The Fosters,” where the leads are a married, lesbian couple (Teri Polo and Sherri Saum), the out Bredeweg says they’ve never been asked to make a gay characters straight and mentions ABC Family’s motto is “A New Kind Of Family.” Of the network and studio, he says, “They are very supportive of the choices we make and the characters we are excited to put out into the world. I’d also love to take a moment to pat ABC Family and the Walt Disney Company on the back as they continue to be recognized by GLAAD year after for being a leader when it comes to the representation of gay, lesbian, and transgender characters on television.”

In fact, Bredeweg doesn't think it would have made a difference in selling "The Fosters" had the leads been two gay men instead of two gay women. "I think it was time for a gay family to hit the airwaves. We actually thought about gay dads at first as we started to develop the show but when we looked around at the television landscape, we felt like gay men had more representation on television than lesbian women. 'Modern Family' had been on the air for a season or two and although that's a family comedy, the series still deals with some great subject matter."

Soloway says she hasn't been asked to make compromises in any representation but she became very aware that the T in LGBT needed more attention in front of and behind the camera. "I've evolved to understand how problematic the lack of trans representation is," she says. "We tried to repair that on the first season of "Transparent" by creating fifteen speaking parts for trans actors who are now SAG eligible. Through our Transfirmitive Action Program we also hired trans people on our crew in as many departments as possible and are the most trans-inclusive production in history."

Bi The Way…

If there's one thing the showrunners agreed upon it's that bisexual characters aren't getting the attention they deserve. Why are bisexual characters a tougher idea for network/studio execs and audiences for that matter?

Hanson, who created a bisexual regular character in Angela (Michaela Conlin) on “Bones,” says, “I think bisexual characters are … confusing? There is always a desired economy in the etching of TV characters so the more clarity there is in a character’s desires and motivations the more efficiently the story can be told.  A bisexual character blurs those lines. It’s a tougher sell.”

But Hanson recalls there was concern on the network side after they’d established Angela as having dated women but then embarked on a relationship with (gasp!) a man, who she would eventually marry and have a child with. “Were we bailing on a gay character by making her bisexual?” he asks. “We agonized about it. But in the end the relationship between Angela and Hodgins (TJ Thyne) was too good to pass up so we took the straight and well-paved road.”

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Covington is facing this very issue on “Faking It” since the character of Amy (Rita Volk) knows she’s not straight but isn’t sure if she’s homosexual or bisexual and it’s something that may not be decided upon any time soon. “Bisexuality has been presented as sort of the stair step to being gay, so a lot of people came out that way,” Covington explains. “They started saying they were bisexual because they weren’t quite ready to embrace their sole gayness. I think that when a character is bisexual, for some of us watching or some of us LGBT people watching, it threatens us because it feels like we’re taking that character backward and so I appreciate on our show that we’re really trying to show that there’s a whole spectrum and people are all over it.”

Soloway has a bisexual character (Syd, played by Carrie Brownstein) on “Transparent” and shares her surprise in finding test audiences were confused by that character in particular. “I wasn’t anticipating that,” she says. “It makes sense, we’re taught to think in binaries – but what I love about this show is how much it challenges cultural assumptions. There’s going to be that moment where you’re in the sixth episode and you’re like, ‘Wait, Syd is bisexual?’”

Some Enchanted Evening…

While we’re very used to the love scene between a man and a woman on television, a same sex couple having the same kind of scene does exist but is there a different approach to how the showrunners write those scenes knowing there could be a different reaction for audiences?

Goyer says he doesn't look at it with any difference. "I've never distinguished between straight and gay characters when writing a romance story," he answers. "Janis's relationship in 'FlashForward' could have easily worked in a heterosexual context. But as a generality, I do think straight characters are allowed more latitude in the current TV environment."

The out Dries introduced the first regular gay character, Luke (Chris Brochu), on “The Vampire Diaries” last season and while they haven’t given him a love interest yet, she shares, “if you watch any network TV show, it’s obvious that you can’t get away with as much.”

On "PLL," Emily has had just as many relationships as the straight girls on the show and her romantic stories are never on the periphery and, instead, as a part of the show's fabric as any of the other straight characters' relationships. "We really romanticize Emily and her relationships on 'PLL'", the out King says, "because she romanticized her first crush for so long. Emily gets as much action as any other PLL and just as much romance."

'The Fosters' personifies the "New Kind Of Family' motto at ABC Family.

While Hanson feels the differences are fading away, Covington admits to thinking about the love scenes differently depending on orientation of the characters. "I do feel when I'm writing for a gay character, and I'm writing a romantic story, I do have a constant running in my mind if I want this to inspire LGBT people who are watching, especially youth, who need positive images to look up to and that can be a censor in my brain because it can push you to have a character not ever think or do anything wrong or have them be perfect. I have to kind of monitor myself and recognize that young people watching ["Faking It"] will be inspired if the characters are flawed just like they are, and if they go through things just like they are but I do feel a little bit extra pressure when I'm writing those stories because I want the people watching them who might be questioning their sexuality to feel good about it."

Over at “The Fosters,” there are two lesbians at the center of the core family but one of their teen children, 13-year old Jude (Hayden Byerly), is already questioning his sexuality. “We are definitely trying to push the envelope when it comes to a teenager coming into their own,” Bredeweg says. “Every teenager, boy or girl, gay or straight, transgender or questioning there comes an age where we start asking ourselves those questions where we start to explore our sexuality and I think that some networks still shy away from putting those coming of age tales of sexuality on the air. But we are definitely pushing to mine that very familiar territory.” Jude hasn’t had a major love interest yet but it would seem the environment on the show is that it could happen any time.

The First Time:

As I described at the beginning, Billy Crystal's Jodie Dallas on "Soap" is the first gay character I remember. What about our esteemed showrunners?

Carter Covington: “It was Matt (Doug Savant) on ‘Melrose Place.’ Jason Beghe played his military boyfriend who was in the closet and they would give it two minutes of every episode, this tiny amount, and I would get so excited and then I would be so frustrated when they would cut to the other story. It felt exciting to me.”

On 'Melrose Place,' Matt (Doug Savant, center in jacket) had his same sex kiss cut from a controversial episode.

Jill Soloway: “Jodie Dallas from ‘Soap.’ Definitely a rollercoaster of a character like in any soap, or parody of one [but] he had some really transgressive moments. He also had some problematic ones. It was the 70s, and I was 12, I had never seen a character like him.”

David Goyer:  “Klinger (Jamie Farr) from ‘M*A*S*H.’ I realize he wasn’t actually gay. But when I was a kid watching that show, it was the first time I became aware of gender issues.”

Bradley Bredeweg: “I watched Madonna’sBlonde Ambition” when it first aired on HBO and it was so beautifully sexually charged and with zero apologies. Then I saw those two dancer boys kiss (after they were dared to do so) in Madonna’s follow up documentary Truth Or Dare.” I was mesmerized. I saw boys kissing boys and I felt like there would soon come a time in which I wouldn’t have to apologize for being attracted to boys. Within a year, I came out as a teenager. Again, with no apologies. It released something in me and I will be forever grateful for that cinematic and television experience.”

Caroline Dries: “The first thing I remember responding to was the Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) and Kim (Elizabeth Mitchel ) storyline on “ER.” I think it was because we had known Kerry so well at the point that she was revealed to be a lesbian, that was just one more aspect of who she was and not her defining characteristic.”

Marlene King: “I’m sure it was some kind of afterschool special like ‘What If I’m Gay?’”

Hart Hanson: “I’d have to say the original British “Queer As Folk” was like somebody kicking open a door to gay lives that were radically and fascinatingly different from heterosexual lives.  I also remember admiring “My So-Called Life” for having such a brash gay teenaged character in Rickie (Wilson Cruz).”

Part 2 of “The TV Showrunners: Creating LGBT Characters, Telling LGBT Stories” will run on this site on Monday, September 22nd.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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