"Will & Grace" -- The TV Series that Changed Gay Rights in America

By Jack Myers Jack Myers Think Tank Archives

The new Will & Grace series premieres on NBC-TV tonight, September 28 at 9 p.m. ET.  Former Vice President Joe Biden believes Will & Grace has done more to advance the cause of the gay population of America than anything else, and the original series is recognized as having been the foundation for public and political acceptance of LGBTQ rights.

Art, in its best form, allows you to experience life and ultimately changes the way you view the world.  Will and Grace was one of those rare television shows to do just that.  It was entertaining, but it did more than just amuse its viewers: It was one of the first public explorations of gay male-straight female relationships, presenting America with a completely fresh perspective.

In September of 1998, following the failure of ABC's Ellen, Will & Grace launched on NBC, the first prime-time television program to have an openly gay male lead character.  The show defied expectations, running from 1998 through 2006 and was the highest-rated sitcom in America among viewers ages 18-40 from 2001-2005, according to Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed's book If Memory Serves.  It opened doors and prepared America for future shows based on homosexuality, possibly because, contrary to popular belief, it wasn't about homosexuality.  Instead, the show was about understanding and being able to value and appreciate one of life's greatest gifts: friendship.

While the show's premise is about two best friends -- Will and Grace -- one who happens to be heterosexual, and one who is not, the plot continues a formulaic sitcom standard: will the odd-couple pairing eventually be romantically consummated?

Granted, the setup of Grace having her life revolve around finding the perfect man doesn't exactly flatter women.  The show focused on her relationships and sexual encounters and rarely crossed the "comfort line" people may have had in terms of delving into Will's relationships and sex life.  Viewers at the time were okay with a woman having a "gay best friend" as long as they didn't have to hear too much about his personal (or sex) life.  It was especially palatable if he was upper-class, white, uptight and not acting in an overtly "gay" manner that made people uncomfortable. Grace had several lovers on the show, portrayed by actors such as Harry Connick Jr., Edward Burns, and Woody Harrelson; Will had an occasional one-episode fling, but was never shown in a long-term relationship, though it was mentioned in the first season that he'd previously had a seven-year relationship.

The center of comic relief was usually Jack, Will's close friend.  Jack was out and proud, but was so over the top that he was also fairly nonthreatening.  Everything about his one-dimensional character was designed to set up the laughs.  Like gay character Oscar Martinez in The Office, Jack is witty and sarcastic; unlike Oscar, he is a caricature, written to be the campy butt of jokes.  (Oscar, on the other hand, is intelligent and a bit of a dork -- and he is also a blue-collar Latino.)

Jack's  flamboyant, theater-loving, loudmouthed personality served another purpose:  By contrasting with Will's "pass-for-straight" demeanor, Will became a safer, easier-to-digest approximation of a gay man.  This was in line with the new asexual but "masculine" image of gays presented in the media -- an image that didn't challenge mainstream society's heteronormativity.  Will has restraint and a brain; Jack is promiscuous and flighty.  The dichotomy presented asked gay viewers "Are you a 'Will' or a 'Jack' type of gay?"

Whether Will & Grace taught the uneducated public much of anything about real LGBT issues (or about non-stereotypical thought) is debatable, but one thing can't be argued:  There are more gay characters on television now.  Will & Grace earned a place in cultural history as the vehicle that brought homosexuality out of television's closet.  The question now remains, "Is the sheer quantity of gay characters on television somehow more important than the quality of those representations?"

Joe Biden was quoted on Meet the Press saying that his personal belief was that Will & Grace had done more to advance the cause of the gay population of America than anything else.  Biden's opinion aside, critics were initially dismissive of the show, some calling it a "gay Seinfeld" and others doubting that a program devoid of romantic chemistry between the female and male leads could possibly last.  As we have seen, these critics were incorrect: Will & Grace went on to run a total of eight seasons and receive eighty-three Emmy nominations and sixteen Emmy Awards.

Part of the show's success was the fact that it was, in part, simply a "gay Seinfeld."  Being gay, however, was not the central theme of the show. Although the two main leads were a gay man and his straight female friend, the show was not focused on the issues related to homosexuality. Instead, it followed a standard sitcom formula while happening to have gay characters among its cast.  This lack of emphasis on being gay made homosexuality less of a loaded issue and pushed it towards the background, paving the way for later shows which would introduce LGBT issues.

Many of the central conflicts within Will & Grace dealt with standard problems such as finding work, romance, fighting with friends and having children.  In this way, Will & Grace demonstrated to audiences that a show did not have to be about the homosexual community if it was to include a homosexual main character.  It also showed that the concerns of the gay community -- friends and family -- were the same as the concerns of the straight community.

"Will & Grace" -- Before and After

Prior to Will & Grace, there were few popular gay-themed shows.  The same year that Will & Grace launched, Ellen DeGeneres had already stirred controversy with the show Ellen, in which the title character (and the actress who played her) had come out as gay.  Ellen's "coming out" episode garnered a huge amount of positive responses from viewers, but the show was cancelled soon after.  When Ellen Morgan first came out on the show, criticism was so intense that DeGeneres reported being followed in her car by strange men, and the show's executives had to screen calls from angry viewers.

Today, it has become far more acceptable to have gay characters on television and to avoid making homosexuality the emphasis of the show itself. Even when homosexuality is prominently featured, a program is free to cover other topics.  Six Feet Under, Glee, The New Normal, Modern Family, White Collar, Warehouse 13 and Orange is the New Black all have one or several gay main characters, but this is rarely explored as a theme of the shows.  Having lead characters who are gay without their sexuality being the focus sends the message that being gay is as normal as any other random character trait, such as red hair or being left-handed.

Modern Family is a direct spiritual successor to Will & Grace.  The show gets a lot of mileage out of humor involving the gay couple in the show but at the same time has been welcomed by viewers and has consistently achieved high ratings.  As with Will & Grace, being gay is not the emphasis, but does play a major part.  The program has been criticized at times for not indicating any physical chemistry between the two gay leads, but it has also won many awards, including seventeen Emmy nominations.

Will & Grace has also been credited with the development of Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Boy Meets Boy.  All three of these shows gained widespread acceptance and achieved commercial success.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was an excellent example of a show that presented a point of view of the gay community that had previously been unexplored by the straight community.  In the program, gay men completely made over a straight (and typically, macho) man.  While it was not a perfect representation, it still went a long way in communicating the fact that the gay community was not a threat, nor ever would be a threat, to the lifestyles of the straight community.  The program garnered some criticism due to being rooted in stereotypes, but it was nevertheless extremely popular.

Six Feet Under was a unique series in that two of the characters were gay and their relationship was heavily featured despite central themes that dealt with other topics.  The gay relationship was given no more or less weight than any other in the show and was framed in much the same way as them.  Six Feet Under proved to be a crowd favorite and was not crippled or held back by the homosexual content.  The show humanized its gay characters and gay relationships in a way that was extremely relatable (as well as critically acclaimed).

Another series that introduced gay themes was the legendary TV series thirtysomething.  In an episode in season three, artist Russell meets ad executive Peter:  The two men, with a bit of prodding from mutual friends, are introduced and arrange a business meeting over dinner.  Peter gives Russell some excellent professional advice about Russell's upcoming art exhibit and shows his keen ability to read Russell through his artistic expressions.  The two hit it off, and they spend the night together.

From the very beginning, Russell is trying to talk himself out of being attracted to Peter.  It's not that Russell is not gay -- both men are somewhat guarded, yet openly homosexual.  The late '80s-early '90s was the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and very little was known about the disease. Everyone in the gay community knew someone who either had the AIDS virus or had already died from it.  This common thread is brought up very casually when Russell and Peter are in bed together for the first time.  The casualness of their tone speaks volumes.  The epidemic was a very large, very real part of their lives, and checking the obituaries for familiar names is something only two gay men could speak about in the same context as checking the sports page or the daily crossword puzzle.

Even though Russell's relationship with Peter had the dynamic of being gay -- foreign to most heterosexual viewers -- their relationship otherwise was very relatable.  Russell's hesitance to approach Peter, for example, even with Melissa's encouragement and full support, was the same found in any new relationship.  People watching could not only relate to his fear of commitment, but could see a little more into the gay world because of it.  His vulnerability allowed viewers to imagine what it must have been like to avoid attachment for the fear of losing yet another close friend.

Peter, in this episode, was even more apprehensive than Russell.  He allowed Russell to make all the first moves, and even though he accepted each advance, it was with cautious reserve.  While he was open with most people about his sexuality, which was particularly brave for that period in time, he shared Russell's fear of attachment.  Seeing the two of them attracted to each other but at the same time so afraid lent an element of sadness to the storyline.  Both characters were very likeable, attractive and successful people -- viewers automatically wanted there to be a happy ending, such as seeing two people who should get together actually be together.  The opportunity to relate to two gay men was a gift from the writers of the show to viewers that had never been given before.

As Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay politician (who was later, tragically, assassinated) said, "Every gay person must come out.  As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family.  You must tell your relatives.  You must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends.  You must tell the people you work with.  You must tell the people in the stores you shop in.  Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all."

Before Will & Grace, TV programs approached gay themes extremely cautiously.  In Three's Company, the main character Jack has to pretend to be gay in front of their landlord in order to be allowed to live with two women.  After Will & Grace, many shows brought a completely new mindset, breaking stereotypes that needed to be obliterated.  Being gay was no longer going to be anyone's punch line; it was part of life, a reality that was finally coming to light after being the elephant in the room for so long.  Thirtysomething's writers did more than create gay characters for their show: They gave them a voice and made them visible.  It was controversial at the time, yes, but very much appreciated by gays and straights alike who could no longer stand for the injustice of homosexuals being seen as unequal.

As acceptance for homosexuality grows, it is very likely that shows will keep including gay characters more often, both in supporting roles and leading roles.  Shows may de-emphasize the topic of homosexuality, instead focusing on the characters' personalities.  Being gay will no longer have to dominate; characters will be well-rounded, complex individuals who also happen to be gay.

As gays gain more visibility and prominence in society and in media, the cultural image of the "real man" will change with it, and as a bonus, objectification of women will become less prominent.  It may be political correctness or it may be a reflection of how studios perceive reality, but today gay male characters are portrayed as more sensitive, creative, enlightened, intelligent, honest, intimate and emotionally tuned-in than straight male characters.  It's ironic and controversial that the image of the ideal man currently emerging in society and in media has gay qualities.  Young straight men exposed to role models of gay men who are successful with women both on TV and in life will be more likely to emulate their behavior than the less respected and less successful behaviors of the traditional misogynistic, objectifying he-man who has dominated media and society from the beginning of time.

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