As Hollywood's morality code loosened during the '60s and '70s, TV writers began to incorporate gay characters into their plots. Overtly LGBT characters were still highly controversial, however, and early characterizations kept those characters on the margins of stories.
• "The Corner Bar" — 1972
Most people have probably never heard of Peter Panama, but this character, played by Vincent Schiavelli, is widely considered to be the first gay recurring character on U.S. TV.
• "Hot L Baltimore" — 1975
This short-lived ABC series by the producer of "All in The Family" and "Sanford and Son" included one of the first gay couples on a U.S. TV series. Those characters, along with other story elements considered to be controversial at the time, led ABC to post a "mature content" warning at the beginning of the show.
• "Soap" — 1977
Billy Crystal's breakout role as Jodie Dallas also marked a breakout for gay characters on TV. "Soap" — a comic parody of soap operas — was a huge hit with audiences, but also drew criticism. Several religious groups objected to the presence of a gay man on TV, while some gay rights groups said the Jodie Dallas character was stereotypical and unrealistically blended elements of a gay man, a transvestite and a transsexual.
The '90's saw a flurry of lesbian and gay characters sharing screen time, sparking applause and outrage, depending on the audience. While some argue that sweeps-week ratings were the real reason for all the making out, these scenes continued the trend toward increasingly realistic depictions of LGBT characters.
• "L.A. Law" – 1991
Two bisexual characters, Abby Perkins, played by Michele Greene, and C.J. Lamb, played by Amanda Donohoe, kissed, marking the first kiss between two women on the small screen. In an interview afterwards, Greene later said the kiss was a ratings gimmick and there were no plans to write a relationship between the two.
• "Roseanne" — 1994
When Roseanne Conner, played by Roseanne Barr, visits a gay bar, she ends up sharing an on-screen kiss with a guest character played by Mariel Hemingway. ABC almost refused to air the scene, which drew a flood of praise and condemnation from the show's huge fanbase.
• "Dawson's Creek" — 2000
The show's season three finale broke ground with the first on-screen kiss between two men, Kerr Smith and Adam Kaufman. While the moment was perhaps overshadowed by Dawson Leery "ugly crying" — a moment that has been immortalized as an internet meme — the kiss was still a huge event for on-screen depictions of LGBT characters.
The end of the millennium saw more actors who publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation, often despite fears that their careers would suffer.
• Ellen Degeneres — 1997
Ellen made history by pairing her real-life coming out with that of her fictional counterpart on "Ellen." Her show was canceled a year later, but after another sitcom and a long-running, successful talk show, her star appeal is stronger than ever.
• Neil Patrick Harris — 2006
Neil Patrick Harris certainly isn't the first gay television actor to come out, but he's one of the most well-known. Harris, who became a household name in his role as a teenager in "Doogie Howser, M.D.," has had a long and varied TV and film career. He's also the first openly gay man to host the Emmy Awards.
In the limelight
Recent years have seen an evolution toward more nuanced and prominent roles for gay, lesbian and bisexual characters, though transgender characters have only begun to find their way to center stage on TV.
• "Will & Grace" 1998 — 2006
The NBC prime-time sitcom topped the ratings for most of its eight year run, making Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) the most famous gay characters on U.S. TV. In addition, McFarland's character is one of the first instances of a gay TV character in a leading role.
• "Modern Family" 2009 — present
The nuanced ABC comedy included Mitchell Vincent Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron Scott Tucker (Eric Stonestreet), a gay couple who are also parents. With complex, distinct personalities, these characters are defined through a wide array of qualities, making them light-years beyond the simple, stereotypically gay characters of earlier shows.
• "Transparent" 2014 — present
Veteran actor Jeffrey Tambor went into uncharted territory in his role as Mort / Maura Pfefferman, a retired professor who announces to his family that he will transition to a woman. While shows such as "Ally McBeal" and "Orange Is The New Black" paved the way for transgender roles, "Transparent" is the first to give a transgender character center stage.