DAVID GREENE, HOST:
2012 was in many ways an important year for gay rights. The president came out in favor of gay marriage. Voters legalized it in three more states. And the American Psychiatric Association removed transgender from the category of mental disorders. A lot has changed since Ellen DeGeneres awkwardly came out on her TV sitcom back in 1997.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "ELLEN")
ELLEN DEGENERES: (as Ellen) Why would you think I was gay?
CRISTINE ROSE: (as Susan) Oh, wow. I'm sorry. I just kind of got that vibe.
DEGENERES: (as Ellen) Vibe? Like a gay vibe? What, like I'm giving off some kind of gay vibration? Gay...
GREENE: Ellen DeGeneres in 1997. NPR's Neda Ulaby turned on the television to see how gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people are being represented culturally today.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The pop culture gay flavor of the minute: white gay dads.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NEW NORMAL")
JUSTIN BARTHA: (as David) We're having a baby, Bry.
ULABY: Like on the show, "The New Normal."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NEW NORMAL")
BARTHA: (as David) You, me and that kid, forever.
ULABY: It's a mini-boomlet, says real life white gay dad Joshua Gamson. As a sociologist, he says pop culture wants mainly to find gay men as promiscuous and deviant, not monogamous and devoted to their families.
JOSHUA GAMSON: It does seem like a strong counter-stereotype of how gay men have been portrayed over the last, whatever, 50 years.
ULABY: This TV trend took off with "Modern Family."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MODERN FAMILY")
ERIC STONESTREET: (as Cameron) We adopted a baby. Her name is Lily.
JESSE TYLER FERGUSON: (as Mitchell) Exciting.
MAX MUTCHNICK: "Modern Family" introduced us to the whole world of gay-bies.
ULABY: That's Max Mutchnick. He helped create "Will and Grace." His latest show, also gay-themed, was recently cancelled. But Mutchnick says any show with openly gay characters should reflect people audiences could know in their real lives.
MUTCHNICK: They see that couple in the park and they see that couple at school with these gay-bies and so it feels right.
ULABY: And it apparently feels right for a multi-billion dollar company like Covergirl to hire Ellen DeGeneres to peddle cosmetics.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
DEGENERES: Hey wrinkled face. That's what people could say if you're still using a liquid foundation...
ULABY: Or for a leading gay character on a network sitcom to carefully crush stereotypes. Like Max, the dumpy bro on the show "Happy Ending."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HAPPY ENDING")
ADAM PALLY: (as Max) Even I think roller blades are gay, and I had sex with a dude last night.
ULABY: Or for a celebrated cable drama to play up a campy subplot about a closeted lesbian teacher in the 1960s.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")
JESSICA LANGE: (as Constance) You would never intentionally expose these little angels to a homosexual, would you?
ULABY: "American Horror Story" attracts millions of viewers. It was dreamed up by Ryan Murphy, who is also responsible for the shows "The New Normal" and "Glee." We're going to travel back in time to his own experiences back in the 1960s and '70s.
RYAN MURPHY: I was a little sad gay boy growing up in Indiana and my visions of what were gay were what I saw on TV - Paul Lynde on "The Hollywood Squares," who I loved, and Charles Nelson Reilly on the "Password" shows.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
CHARLES NELSON REILLY: She said my hat looked chic, and you know what I said to her? Anyone that would wear those rubies shouldn't throw that word around.
ULABY: All gay audiences had were signifiers and stereotypes, and they clung to them, says Dave Kohan. He's Max Mutchnick's straight collaborator.
DAVE KOHAN: I remember this show called "Love, Sidney."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ULABY: A lot of gay people do. A ridiculously saccharine sitcom where Tony Randall played a wealthy gay man living with a little girl and her mom. But Kohan remembers the characters' sexuality as barely even an open secret.
KOHAN: He wasn't gay. He was shy. It was another three-letter word ending in Y. We always said he went to shy bars.
ULABY: What a staggering sea change when you fast forward to what's on TV today. "Glee," arguably the gayest show on network television, models what it's like to be a gay kid and even how to parent one, says Ryan Murphy.
MURPHY: The Kurt/Dad story on "Glee" was completely based on the relationship I wished I had had with my father.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLEE")
CHRIS COLFER: (as Kurt) I'm gay.
MIKE O'MALLEY: (as Burt) I know.
COLFER: (as Kurt) Really.
O'MALLEY: (as Burt) I've known since you were three. All you wanted for your birthday was a pair of sensible heels.
ULABY: Back in the days of "Love, Sidney," even a shy character courted controversy. Today there are so many gay characters, "Glee"'s had to deal with a kind of opposite controversy, fans complaining vociferously about gay characters not being affectionate enough. His fans, says Ryan Murphy, keep track.
MURPHY: If you're going to show a straight couple kiss, show a gay couple kiss, so that they feel like, okay, there's hope for me. There's a way for me. I'm worthy of that happiness.
ULABY: Ensuring equality is something television lacks, says Susan Feniger. She's a celebrity chef who often appears on television. She says if an alien was to come from outer space and learn about gay people just from TV, they'd get a totally false impression.
SUSAN FENIGER: I think if someone were to come from outer space, they might think that it's only men who are out there that are gay, and you might think that they're all a little bit queen-y.
ULABY: Last fall, Gallup released findings about its largest poll ever about gay Americans. Slightly more women identified as gay than men and more African-Americans, Asians and Latinos said they were GLBT than whites. So where's that on TV?
TRISH BENDIX: Well, actually, there have been a lot of women of color, which has been great.
ULABY: Trish Bendix runs a website called After Ellen. It tracks lesbian representation on TV. She rattled off at least half a dozen shows with nonwhite queer female characters - "White Collar," "The Good Wife," "Underemployed" on MTV.
BENDIX: "Pretty Little Liars" has a multiracial lesbian. "Gray's Anatomy," Callie is bisexual and she's also a woman of color, and Santana on "Glee."
ULABY: The problem, says Bendix, is mostly these are exoticized slinky fems in bit roles.
BENDIX: It's like the other is always going to be the other, and so it's like we'll just pile the other-ness on the one person.
ULABY: There's a place where sexual others have long found a natural home on television, on reality shows, all the way back to the very first one. In "American Family," aired on PBS in 1973, it followed a family over an inadvertently eventful year that included a son coming out. Then "The Real World." Then "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy."
Suddenly TV screens swelled with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters on reality shows from "The Voice" to RuPaul's "Drag Race."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DRAG RACE")
RUPAUL: Now, the object of this game is to pin these chickens on my face.
ULABY: Maybe it's because the genre depends absolutely on a sense of authenticity, says Susan Feniger.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, Susan.
ULABY: She competed on "Top Chef Masters."
FENIGER: My partner now of 15 years, I actually wooed her at one of my restaurants.
ULABY: Feniger says if you've had to define yourself as different, you end up with a sense of self useful in reality casting.
FENIGER: Reality TV, if you're comfortable in yourself and who you are, then why wouldn't you be openly out, especially now. Being out is hip right now.
ULABY: Right now. Gay representation on TV is seemingly boundless, winning "The Amazing Race," anchoring the news. There's even an entire gay cable channel, Logo, and gay and straight audiences are relishing gay TV villains that not too long ago might have been denounced as offensive caricatures.
(SOUNDBITE FROM "DOWNTON ABBEY")
ROB JAMES-COLLIER: (as Thomas) Tell me, Mr. Parson, do you think it right a man like that should live and work at Downton?
ULABY: Take Thomas, the evil gay footman on "Downton Abbey." The character once might have been seen as a homophobic stereotype. Now he just blends into an expanding universe. And guess what? It's even bigger than the actual number of gay people in the population. A study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation shows 4.4 of characters on TV are gay.
That's more than the actual percentage of gay Americans. Gallup says it's 3.3 percent. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
GREENE: And you hear Neda's reporting on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Neda Ulaby looks at the current landscape of gay characters on television, from the highest brows of Downton Abbey to the surprisingly welcoming world of reality shows.
Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) adopt Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) from Vietnam in Modern Family.
Blaine (Darren Criss) and Kurt (Chris Colfer) navigate the less permanent, but no less terrifying world of high school in Glee.
Adam Rose / AP
The pop culture gay flavor of the minute? White gay dads.
"We're having a baby, Bri!" croons one of the leads on NBC's The New Normal. "This is our family. You, me and that kid forever."
It's a mini-boomlet, says real-life white gay dad and sociology professor Joshua Gamson. Not too long ago, he says, pop culture mainly defined gay men as promiscuous and deviant, rather than monogamous and devoted to their families.
"It does seem like a strong counter-stereotype of how gay men have been portrayed over the past, whatever, 50 years," he says.
Think about one of the most popular sitcoms on TV today, says Max Mutchnik, who helped create Will and Grace.
"Modern Family introduced us to the whole world of gaybies," he noted.
Mutchnik's latest show, called Partners, also gay-themed, was recently canceled. But Mutchnick says any show with openly gay characters should reflect people audiences could know in their real lives. So we see gay men and lesbians in real life with babies — or "gaybies," if you will.
Meanwhile, gay TV pioneer Ellen DeGeneres is a face of the multibillion-dollar cosmetic company Cover Girl, and television overflows with gay and lesbian characters, from the pudgy bro Max on the ABC show Happy Endings to the crusading lesbian journalist on the cable hit American Horror Story.
Ryan Murphy dreamed up American Horror Story. And The New Normal. And Glee. His memories of watching TV as a child are best described as bleak.
"I was a little sad gay boy growing up in Indiana," he recalls. "And my visions of what was gay were what I saw on TV. Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares, who I loved, and Charles Nelson Reilly on the Password shows."
Gay audiences clung to what they had — signifiers and stereotypes — says Dave Kohan, Mutchnick's non-gay collaborator.
"Remember that show called Love, Sidney?" he says, referring to an early 1980s sitcom starring Tony Randall as a wealthy gay man living with a little girl and her mom. The character's sexuality was barely even an open secret.
"He wasn't gay, he was shy," Kohan wryly observed. "It was another three-letter word ending in 'y.' We always said he went to shy bars."
What a staggering sea change when you fast forward to what's on TV today. Back in the days of Love, Sidney, even a "shy" character courted controversy. Today, there's no controversy at all when Glee, arguably the gayest show on network television, models what it's like to be a gay kid or how to parent one.
"The Kurt/Dad story on Glee was completely based on the relationship I wished I had had with my own father," Ryan Murphy says.
If anything, Murphy says, Glee has had to deal with a kind of opposite controversy — fans complaining vociferously about gay characters not being affectionate enough with each other. Equality is not exactly television's strength when it comes to LGBT representation. Last fall, Gallup released findings about its largest poll ever about gay Americans. Slightly more women identified as gay than men, and more African-Americans, Asians and Latinos said they were LGBT than whites. So where's that on TV?
"Actually, there have been a lot of women of color, which has been great," said Trish Bendix, who runs a website called AfterEllen.com, which tracks lesbian representation on television. She rattled off at least a half-dozen shows with non-white queer female characters: White Collar, The Good Wife, Underemployed, Pretty Little Liars, Grey's Anatomy, Glee.
But too often, says Bendix, these are small roles played by exoticized, slinky femmes. "Like, 'the other' is always going to be the other," she observed ruefully. "So we'll just pile all that otherness on the one person."
Sexual others have long found one natural home on television: reality shows — all the way back to the very first one.
An American Family aired on PBS in 1973. It followed a family over an inadvertently eventful year that included a son coming out. Then The Real World two decades later, then Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Suddenly, TV screens swelled with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters on reality shows, from Survivor to The Voice to RuPaul's Drag Race.
Maybe it's because the genre depends absolutely on a sense of authenticity, says celebrity chef Susan Feniger. She has competed on the skill reality show Top Chef Masters. She says people who have had to define themselves as different might have an edge in reality casting.
"Reality TV, if you're open with yourself and who you are, then why wouldn't you be openly out?" she wondered. "Especially now. Being out is hip right now!"
Right now, gay representations on TV are seemingly boundless. Winning The Amazing Race. Anchoring the news. There's even an entire gay cable channel, Logo. And gay and straight audiences are relishing gay TV villains that not too long ago might have been deemed offensive caricatures.
Take Thomas, the evil gay footman on Downtown Abbey. That character once might have been seen as a homophobic stereotype. Now, he just blends into an ever-expanding universe — one that's in fact even bigger than the actual number of gay people in the population. A study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation shows 4.4 percent of characters on TV are gay. Gallup measures the actual percentage of gay Americans as 3.3 percent.