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These gay characters are worth watching

OPINION

October 11, 2012|By Lenox Magee, @lenoxmagee | For RedEye

According to last week's report from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the number of LGBT characters on broadcast network TV is at its highest level ever. In a study of 97 scripted TV programs scheduled for the fall, 31 of 701 regular characters were identified as LGBT.

As my mother would say, "The gays are everywhere." She's right—we are. But what does this progress really mean?

I can't help but think of the similarities to the period when black characters forged their way into mainstream TV through the '70s, '80s and '90s. African-Americans started out on TV as random characters, then ultimately became the focus of successful shows. Back in the day, "Good Times," "The Cosby Show," "In Living Color," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Martin," "Family Matters" and my personal favorite, "A Different World," resonated with all TV audiences.

For me, it started with the character Dwayne Wayne from "A Different World." He was a quirky, nerdy guy with flip-up glasses—and he kind of looked like me. Dwayne was one of the first black characters I identified with on TV. Beyond that, the show helped me to visualize blacks going to college, being successful and being in love.

Although black visibility has increased on TV (in the same study, GLAAD found African-American representation jumped to 12 percent this year from 9.9 percent in 2011), many people criticized the shows for some of their stereotypical representations of African-American culture. (Think "ghetto girl" Sheneneh on "Martin.")

The LGBT community felt the same way as recently as 10 years ago, when popular shows cast overly effeminate characters who didn't speak for large swaths of the gay community. ("Will & Grace," anyone?) Now, shows with prominent, positive gay characters such as "Modern Family," "True Blood" and "The New Normal" are creating a fan base that gays couldn't have imagined a decade ago.

Without a doubt, we cannot ignore that GLAAD'S report confirms that TV is more diverse and inclusive. As more Americans have come to not only accept, but to embrace, their LGBT family members, friends, co-workers and peers, and as audiences tune in to their favorite programs, they expect to see the same diversity of people they encounter in their daily lives.

It might be safe to say that it is now vital for networks to weave complex and diverse storylines of LGBT people into the programs they air if they want successful ratings.

I'll leave you with this story: It was actually a gay TV character who gave me the courage to come out of the closest when I was 15. I was watching "Ellen" (go figure!) when she came out on national TV. That night, I decided to come out to my family. Although I knew these characters were fictional, they provided me a real blueprint on life as a black man and as a gay man.

Now that's progress.

Lenox Magee is a RedEye special contributor.


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