The first gay character that Matt Radcliffe remembers seeing on television was Ellen Morgan, from the 1990s sitcom Ellen. Reflecting actress Ellen DeGeneres' own coming out, the show ran a story with Morgan addressing her attraction to guest character Susan, played by Laura Dern. Lost advertisers and at least one bomb threat aside, the episode marked a change in how LGBT people are represented in television.
"I remember watching that episode with my mom," Radcliffe says. "That was a great moment in my life, to see that." Radcliffe, a local gay actor (and former Indy graphic designer), also drew a lot of strength from another big TV personality.
"When Neil Patrick Harris came out of the closet, it was a big deal for me," he says, explaining that he has always felt a kinship with the actor. To say that it's important to see people who are like oneself in the media almost seems like a truism. The nature of that representation is often a reflection on major issues affecting the people being represented. In 1985, when tens of thousands of Americans were dying from a poorly understood disease, Larry Kramer wrote Tony-winner The Normal Heart to bring awareness to the crisis. 1993 saw the premier of Angels in America, a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play. It explored the lives of gay American men as they navigated AIDS, homophobia and internalized self-hate. Three years later, the iconic musical Rent further humanized AIDS sufferers.
AIDS remains a serious disease, but after more than 30 years of education and research, it's no longer the specter of death it once was. Now, LGBT representation in media is free to focus more on showing that LGBT people are the same as anyone else.
"Nowadays, I feel like it's less about telling hard truths about the way gays are treated or the way we have been mistreated," says Radcliffe. "It's more about telling stories of acceptance."
Madolyn Whitmer, a Houston-based playwright, uses the stage to put LGBT characters in a genre where they have been largely absent or mistreated: horror. Her play, The Haunting of Camp Rod and Staff, was recently selected as one of eight to be staged as part of Funky Little Theater's Spectrum LGBT new play festival. It's a goofball take on summer camp slasher films like Friday the 13th, set at a Christian gay conversion camp.
"I actually did a little bit of research to try and find some LGBT characters [in horror], and it was very difficult to find anything on them," says Whitmer. She notes one film, Sleepaway Camp, which features a transwoman as its killer, a character who Whitmer describes as "just a crazy murderer. She has no substance as a character." More, the killer's backstory involves a crazed aunt forcing the killer to adopt her recently deceased sister's name and gender. Needless to say, Sleepaway Camp isn't lauded for promoting trans dignity.
In her own work, Whitmer addresses the heavy subject of gay conversion therapy, an umbrella term for attempts to convert gays and lesbians to heterosexuality. The American Psychological Association calls the practice "certainly discredited."
"I wanted [the play] to be a comedy," says Whitmer. "I wanted to see something that people could laugh at and have fun with, but also make them think at the same time." To paraphrase Whitmer's protagonist, the point of this extremely heavy-handed moment is that you have to learn to be true to yourself now, before it's too late... and you die in a freak hot glue-gun accident.