The constantly increasing visibility of gay characters in television series and in films over the last few decades has played an important role in helping straight people to relate to their gay and lesbian neighbours with less of a discomforting sense of the unfamiliar. Yet some people - such as right-wing American politician Rick Santorum - see this increase in representation as a scourge, with Santorum blaming the push for the legalization of gay marriage on the long-running US sitcom Will & Grace. But how are gay and lesbian characters changing aside from their supposed pressure on marriage laws?
Santorum would be taken with just as little seriousness if he suggested that LGBT people everywhere are likely to turn to gun-toting crime thanks to the example of Omar Little, the queer, wise-cracking thug in the US urban drama The Wire. Will & Grace was comparatively harmless by conservatives' standards. What would Santorum have to say about The Wire, or Six Feet Under, Alan Ball's saga about a family of undertakers, and its frank portrayal of the relationship between uptight undertaker David and his hunky African-American partner Keith?
The stereotype of the slutty and superficial gay man is no more the go-to type when a gay best friend or villain is needed. In the musical US show Glee, Kurt Hummel is used not only to tackle subjects such as bullying but also romance between gay teens (as has Skins in the UK). When Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt, won a Golden Globe in 2011, he thanked Ryan Murphy, the series' creator, as his 'fairy godfather'. Shows such as these don't simply push political agendas - they remind people that sex and sexuality, and communities based on these aspects of life, take many forms.
It's not only American audiences that have been seeing increasing numbers of gay and lesbian characters on their screens. British soaps have had several LGBT characters - some have even pointed out that gay characters have been a part of British soaps long before American producers caught on - but some representations have been less savoury than others. Few EastEnders stalwarts will forget unstable and murderous Steven Beale, whose bisexuality was introduced through a love triangle right before the character was written out in 2008. Recent UK shows such as Torchwood, the spin-off from Doctor Who, have portrayed gay characters with greater complexity than self-loathing closet case or twisted villain.
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