'The only place gay teens see affection like theirs is on TV'
As much-loved sitcom Will & Grace returns to our screens, Caomhan Keane explores the evolution of homosexual characters onscreen
If you're a gay man of a certain age, there's a moment in pop-culture history that is etched like ogham into the stone monument of your sexuality; the televisual equivalent of knowing where you were when you heard that JFK or Princess Di had passed.
February 23, 1999 marked the birth of Queer as Folk a funny, searing look at the lives of two gay men and one gay teen, and the impact their sexuality had on those around them.
It kicked off a storm of tabloid hysteria - a spiralling arrangement of moral outrage, political correctness and homophobia raining on the parade of graphic, unflinching and utterly unromantic sex scenes between an underage schoolboy and the much older man he was infatuated with.
But, for this 15-year-old 'closet' dweller, the show was like a sexual and social Narnia, a weekly escape to a world that seemed incomprehensible but exciting.
It didn't just preach acceptance, but bracingly showed the rejection, animosity and illiteracy of the heterosexual world as they struggled to come to terms with a gay teenager embracing - with vigour - his sexuality.
Here was a show that didn't cut away from a same-sex kiss or infantilise us as Cher-loving, lip-syncing bitches, crude of mouth but shy of sex. We weren't the comic foil, the cautionary tale or the after-school special. We existed, fully formed, in a story that wasn't there to teach straights tolerance, but to reflect our own existence back to us.
At the same time, Will & Grace, which returns to American TV next week, was camping up its ample attributes. Funny and groundbreaking, it also projected a sometimes troubling message into livings rooms week on week.
Over the course of four episodes in its terrible fifth season, all titled 'Fagmalion', Will and his best friend Jack help make-over another gay character, so that he fit the thin, Gucci-clad, gym-bunny type which, they intoned, was the only acceptable way to be in queer society.
The other shoe never dropped.
It was sometimes transphobic, often misogynistic and nearly always sexless beyond their 'oh matron' double-entendres, as the hetronormative love lives of the show's female characters, Karen and Grace, took precedence.But there were also several powerful moments in the show, which captured the struggle that comes with being gay.
From Will's self-loathing - which manifested in his calling Jack a fag - to his own father's ultimate rejection of his sexuality, the inadequacy he feels when his brother dates Grace, and the issues that arise when she marries another, the show asked serious questions about the power dynamics and sexual psychology at play in a relationship between gay men and straight women, particularly as time goes by.
And, Lord, was it funny. Particularly Karen, one of the queerest creations to ever grace the small screen. With her fluid gender and sexuality, she regularly mocked the sacred institution of marriage at a time when.
Neglecting her husband and his children and embracing booze, drugs and BDSM, her tart tongue was a weapon, but it covered up a brain, a heart and an understanding that was often lacking in both Will and Grace.
But I still consider Jack to be the most loathsome character, not because of - like I thought for years - my own self-loathing, rather the opposite.
The femme character is portrayed as a selfish, disloyal, talentless leech, with zero positive attributes, much like on Modern Family where Cam is shown to be hysterical and irrational.
It took two seasons for gay men to kiss on either show for heavens sake, and even then, it had to be 'an event' rather than a natural everyday occurrence as it was for the straight couples.
That was 18 years ago, and in that time, TV has finally started moving away from such reductive representations. We're here, we're queer and we've got on with it.
Characters like Kalinda in The Good Wife, Ilana on Broad City or Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) are shown to be bisexual without having to have a big conversation about it, and the seeming demise of that trope has allowed storytellers to explore tales that begin long after the closet door's been blown off. But true progress will be seen when gay characters are able to live on screen, warts and all, aside their straight counterparts, instead of putting their best face forward. Though what face to present has long been a topic of debate in the community.
Some, like me, mourned the cancellation of HBO's Looking last year in our widow's weeds. Others were only too delighted to toss the dirt on its coffin, for the show disrupted the letters of the LGBT soup like a red-headed stepchild.
Written for gays, by gays, about and mostly starring gays, expectations were high for Looking.
Yet, failing to be all things to all men, it was quickly hoisted on its own feather-boa petard and beaten like a piñata by every subset of the community, who projected their idea of what gayness looked and acted like, upon it, rather than allowing it to be what it was: the story of three particular men and how they navigated their relationships - sexual, professional and personal - around the homosexual ground-zero that is San Francisco.
It didn't marinate in salacious or hilarious sex scenes, it didn't indulge in cliffhangers or zany, camp storylines. It was more concerned with exploring the minutia of being a millennial 'mo, and all the first-world problems and privileged guilt that came with that. Douching, bottom shame and the use of HIV prevention medication like PrEP have long been excised from depictions of gay life, out of respect for squeamish straight audiences. But how are young gay men to be conscious of these issues when it comes to their own sexual health, if they are never shown or even mentioned on screen?
The L Word, which is also bursting through the soil of TV's Pet Cemetery (there's a revival scheduled for next year), similarly irked. "I think it's one of the most problematic shows ever written," says Bella FitzPatrick, managing director of ShoutOut. "Max goes through every negative connation of trans on TV, the women have pornographic sex… but I just love it. No one has jobs, all of them are rich, but there is something compelling about the characters and the way they interact."
Whether you agree that they correctly filled their brief or not, LGBT-centered shows as diverse as Will & Grace and Looking are vital for the health of the community.
Yes, it's problematic that Orange Is The New Black is set in a prison, but its location allows us to observe characters of different ethnic backgrounds and sexualities as they interact with one another, while their sexuality is not the only card on the table. It's problematic that a cisgender man is playing the role of a trans woman in Transparent, but Jeffrey Tambor's excellent portrayal is creating a demand for trans stories on network TV.
On the recently cancelled Doubt, we had a first for prime-time TV, three trans girlfriends, played by three trans actors, sitting down to gossip about their sex lives as if it's no big deal. And while the excellent The Real O Neal's might give an overly simplistic view of coming out to a religious parent, it's family viewing that will help parents see the reality rather than the Sodom & Gomorra fantasy inflamed by Catholic dogma. I'd have killed for such a show when I was growing up, rather than seeing Corrie's Gail laying Eileen out on Weatherfield's cobblestones because Todd 'was a twisted pervert'.
"The only place the vast majority of gay teens see affection between people like them is on TV," Bella concludes. "And when they don't recognise themselves on screen, it damages their sense of who they are.
"We need well-rounded representations, as it's hard to invest in a future when you don't see one out there for yourself."