Depending on when each of us came of age, the first openly LGBT figure on television we might have been familiar with was Billy Crystal’s Jodie on the 1970’s sitcom Soap. Or it may have been Will Truman (Eric McCormack) or Jack McFarland (the out Sean Hayes) on Will & Grace, or lesbian comedian/talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. Two of my earliest role models as a kid were closeted actor Paul Lynde (of Bewitched and Hollywood Squares fame) and the histrionic, comically nasty Dr. Smith on Lost in Space (played by the late Jonathan Harris, who was somewhat surprisingly straight). This likely explains a lot to those who know me.
The Paley Center for Media is, according to its President and CEO Maureen Reidy, “the leading non-profit cultural organization that showcases the importance of media in our society” with offices in both Los Angeles and New York. Their annual Los Angeles gala, to be held on November 12th at the Skirball Cultural Center, will celebrate the critical role television has played in advancing LGBT equality over six decades. Such classic programs as All in the Family, L.A. Law, Roseanne, The Real World, The L Word and Modern Family will be spotlighted.
“Television has reshaped and redefined American identity and culture and has led to important social change,” Reidy said. “We believe this is the perfect time to celebrate television’s role in LGBT progress.” The November 12th event will benefit the Paley Center’s public, industry and educational programs.
Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi are serving as this year’s gala Co-Chairs. Celebrity presenters will include Sean Hayes, Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, sitcom pioneer Norman Lear and out NBA player Jason Collins. An impressive array of sponsors and supporters has also been secured, with ESPN, Lionsgate, the David Geffen Foundation, Disney/ABC Television Group and HBO among them.
I inquired as to whether Reidy has encountered any opposition from corporations or individuals since announcing this year’s gala. “The Paley Center has received unanimous support – and tremendous excitement – from everyone who has learned about this event and the important initiative behind it, the expansion and preservation of our LGBT archive,” she replied. “The encouragement we’ve received from our Board of Trustees, the heads of so many major media companies, and organizations including GLAAD has been very gratifying.”
Reidy has ascended rapidly to her leading position, from Chief Marketing Office to President/CEO in less than two years. “The Paley Center for Media is a very special organization that produces an exceptional lineup of programming that, I believe, is unmatched,” according to Reidy. “Year round, we curate dynamic in-depth conversations by bringing together industry leaders, emerging influencers, top creative talents, and the public for insightful programs that provide a peek behind-the-scenes and explore media’s influence on our society and culture.” Among these is the annual PaleyFest, which has become a hot ticket among TV fans.
In addition to the previously mentioned shows and actors, there are several others who have been instrumental in furthering LGBT equality via TV and the media over the years. The Phil Donahue Show, Doing Time on Maple Drive, Queer as Folk, Glee, How to Survive a Plague, True Blood and Ryan Murphy’s short-lived The New Normal are but a few additional examples. Reidy singled out one classic television program and the people behind it in particular.
“The writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link, and director Lamont Johnson come to mind immediately,” she said. “They had the courage to write and direct the groundbreaking ABC Movie of the Week That Certain Summer in 1972, a film that was a pivotal step forward towards changing our perceptions about gay relationships. Their script about a middle-aged divorcé, living in San Francisco with his male partner, who must decide whether or not to be open about his life when his teenage son comes to visit included a father’s simple declaration to his son that he and his partner loved each other.” Award-winning actors Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen courageously played the gay roles. “It was a powerful and hopeful statement at the time, and it still resonates today.”
As part of its mission, the Paley Center for Media (which was originally known as the Museum of Television & Radio, founded in 1975 by CBS founder William S. Paley) plays a critical role in preserving, exploring, discussing and interpreting key issues as they appear in media. To this end, their LGBT Collection is one of many special collections that comprise the more than 160,000 programs in their curated archives in LA and NYC. These are accessible to educators, scholars, media creators and the general public.
The current 2014-2015 television season is shaping up to be one of the strongest to date in terms of LGBT visibility. I asked Reidy whether there are any new series she finds particularly noteworthy. “It’s a truly exciting and inclusive time in television and digital media,” she replied. “You can’t help but be thrilled with the success of shows including ABC’s Modern Family, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and Amazon’s Transparent, which have been a giant leap forward in terms of representation for the LGBT community.” Reidy continued: “It’s also been refreshing to see new series like The CW and Warner Bros. Television’s Jane the Virgin and Disney/ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, amongst other new shows with gay characters who are central to the storyline.”
I agree with her summation of How to Get Away with Murder, which has been unusually forthright in its depiction of gay sex and relationships. The superhero series Arrow and The Flash are also significant in their inclusion of LGBT characters and performers. Among the out actors who have appeared or will soon be appearing on these DC Comics-inspired shows are John Barrowman, Wentworth Miller, Victor Garber and Andy Mientus.There have also been persistent rumors that the most popular series currently on TV, AMC’s zombie thriller The Walking Dead, will be introducing or outing a gay male character (joining the out lesbian Tara, played by Alanna Masterson) before this season is out.
For more info about the Paley Center and its work, visit their website.
Preview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.