1. 1934: The Children’s Hour
At the time of the Broadway premiere of “The Children’s Hour,” making any reference to homosexuality on stage was illegal in New York. The three-act drama was set in an all-girls boarding school where a disgruntled, runaway student makes a shocking accusation—that the two headmistresses are having an affair. The accusation destroys the women’s careers, relationships and lives. Despite its illegal themes, the play was a huge success. The drama ran for 691 performances at the Maxine Elliott Theatre. The play was a contender for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but when it lost to “The Old Maid,” the committee was accused of rejecting the play due to the controversial subject (one of the judges had even refused to see it). Angered by the decision, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle was inspired to award its first-ever annual prize for drama the following year.
2. 1975: Hot I Baltimore
Adapting it from an off-Broadway play by Lanford Wilson, Norman Lear created the sitcom, “Hot l Baltimore,” which featured the first gay couple to appear on U.S. television. Premiering on January 24, 1975, the show took place in a cheap, fictional Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland, which got its name from the neon marquee that had a burned-out “e” letter. Due to the show’s subject matter, and then-controversial characters (including two prostitutes and a gay couple named George and Gordon), it was the first time ABC decided to display a warning at the opening of one of its shows, cautioning viewers about the mature themes. Despite the networks efforts, the show never garnered an audience and was cancelled after 13 episodes. Sadly, ABC’s Baltimore affiliate never aired the show at all, forcing the city the sitcom took place in to watch the show on the Washington D.C. affiliate.
3. 1976: All in the Family
A homophobic Archie Bunker performs CPR on a woman who passed out in the back out his taxicab, only later to find out the customer was in fact a man in drag. Played by the openly gay female impersonator Lori Shannon, the character Beverly LaSalle appears in three episodes of “All in the Family,” eventually becoming friends with Edith. In her third and final appearance, Beverly is killed after leaving the Bunker house in a senseless act of hate, which highlighted the social stigma of LGBT people at the time. Edith’s suffers a deep sense of loss, left to come to terms with the violent and futile death of her friend.
4. 1977: Soap
Created, written and executive produced by future “Golden Girls” creator Susan Harris, “Soap” was a sitcom that ran on ABC. Premiering on September 13, 1977, the show was a parody of daytime soap operas, playing on the same over-dramatized plot elements, such as murder, kidnapping and alien abduction. Set in the fictional town of Dunn’s River, Connecticut, the show centered around two sisters, Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell. In one of his first roles, Billy Crystal played Mary’s son Jodie Dallas, an openly gay man who was having a secret love affair with a closeted, professional quarterback and considering transitioning to becoming a woman. The show faced significant criticism prior to its premiere for its emphasis on sex and infidelity, mostly from the religious community. The International Union of Gay Athletes and the National Gay Task Force also had concerns with the character of Jodie and how the love affair with the football player was portrayed. The show had internal struggles as well. ABC’s Broadcast Standards and Practices department took issue with its content. Despite the six months of protests leading up to is premiere, or maybe because them, “Soap” had great ratings. It ran for four seasons, but the controversy surrounding it never truly subsided.
5. 1991: L.A. Law
In a stunt that was later revealed to be nothing but a rating ploy, the episode “He’s a Crowd,” in the fifth season of the legal drama, shocked the nation when it aired the first kiss between a homosexual couple on network TV. After winning a case together, the Los Angeles based-lawyers Abby Perkins and C.J. Lamb walked to their cars holding hands, eventually sharing an intimate kiss. In the wake of the first in a series of “lesbian kiss episodes” between a lesbian or bisexual character and a female character who identified as heterosexual, at least five sponsors pulled their ads from the show.
6. 1993: Philadelphia
The first big-budget, major studio film to tackle the issues of AIDS, homophobia and homosexuality, “Philadelphia” starred Tom Hanks (who would win an Oscar for Best Actor) and Denzel Washington. Despite receiving mixed reviews, it would go on to be the 12th highest-grossing film in the United States in 1993. The film centers around the firing of Andrew Beckett, a senior associate at the largest corporate law firm in Philadelphia. He believes he is let go because of his sexuality and AIDS status. Unable to find a lawyer to represent him, he decides to represent himself, eventually joining forces with a personal injury lawyer, Joe Miller.
7. 1994: Ikea Commercial
While today, gay couples have appeared in the TV commercials of Cheerios, Honey and DirecTV, it was Ikea that featured the first same-sex couple in a mainstream commercial. The ad was the first in the company’s lifestyle campaign that featured different types of consumers (later ads included a divorced mom and adopting parents). While the company aired it after “family hour” programming, the American Family Association still loudly objected, calling for a boycott of the chain. The idea for the controversial—and ground-breaking commercial—came from the creative team at the Deutsch advertising agency, who went to a New Jersey Ikea to observe who was actually shopping there. They saw a lot of gay couples and decided that make that their ad. Ikea was on board from the start.
8. 1997: Elllen
“Ellen” was a sitcom centered around the character of Ellen Morgan (played by Ellen DeGeneres), a neurotic bookstore owner in her 30s. Originally named “These Friends of Mine,” it was renamed to avoid confusion with the popular show “Friends,” which premiered the same year. There were many hints and leaks that the character Ellen, or Ellen DeGeneres herself, was planning to come out. Despite advertisers and religious groups threatening to boycott the show, 42 million Americans tuned in to watch Ellen come out on a special hour-long episode of the show that featured star-studded cameo appearances from Laura Dern (as the woman Ellen falls for), Oprah Winfrey (as the therapist to whom she makes her revelation), k.d. lang, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton and Dwight Yoakam. While the episode would go on to win awards and accolades, later episodes failed to hold audiences and it was canceled after the 1997 season. While many worried that DeGeneres (who had simultaneously announced that she herself was gay) would suffer a career backlash, she later went on to a successful career as both a TV host and actress.
9. 2001: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Over its seven-year run, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” introduced TV viewers to three lesbian characters. Taking place in the fictional town of Sunnydale, the series focused on a close circle of friends who supported their friend, Buffy Summers, a teenager gifted with superhuman powers to defeat vampires, demons and other forms of evil. Appearing in almost every one of the 144 episodes was Willow Rosenberg, one of Buffy’s best friends. From the beginning, Willow was a fan favorite, which did not change after she came out in the fourth season. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” depicted the first long-term lesbian relationship on U.S. television (between Willow and Tara), as well as the first lesbian sex scene on primetime television.