In 1996, democratic President Bill Clinton contently signed The Defense of Marriage Act into federal law; Americans were decidedly against same-sex marriage. Sixteen years later, as the opposition against the gay agenda falls like dominoes and Midwestern states like Minnesota legalize same-sex marriage, gay characters and storylines on network television deserves most of the credit for shifting America’s view.
Think back to 1997, one year after DOMA was signed, the year Ellen DeGeneres declared to the world, “I’m gay,” during her ABC show Ellen, making her the first openly gay character on primetime TV. In fact, Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out was one of the most defining moments of 1997. The episode in which Ellen came out, titled “The Puppy Episode,” was the highest-rated episode of the show. In an interview to Time magazine she said, “I never wanted to be the lesbian actress. I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Ever,” (“Ellen DeGeneres Tells Time She’s a Lesbian”). However, it didn’t matter what Ellen wanted; her very public coming out was all it took for viewers and the network to identify her as “the lesbian,” and positive consequences were not the result.
The backlash started early on. Before the episode even aired, conservative group American Family Association pressured ABC to drop the coming out storyline. Right-wing group Media Research took out a full-page ad in Variety claiming ABC and Disney (ABC’s parent company) were “promoting homosexuality to America’s families,” (Lo). Furthering this trend, Phyllis Schlafly, Rev. Donald Wildmon, and Rev. Jerry Falwell signed a scathing letter characterizing “The Puppy Episode” as a “slap in the face to America’s families,” (Lo). Chrysler and JC Penney dropped all their ads, and DeGeneres was even given the crude nickname, the “DeGenerate,” (Lo). As the show delved deeper into Ellen’s self discovery and hardships faced as a lesbian in society, the audience diminished, the show was flagged with a parental warning, and ABC cancelled the show in its fifth season.
It was a different world though, and the statistics confirm this. According to Gallup’s 1996 measurement for support of gay marriage, less than 27% of the population approved of same-sex marriage. Only around 40% even thought it should be legal for two consenting adults of the same sex to engage in sexual relations ("For First Time, Majority of Americans Favor Legal Gay Marriage”). Even after the show was cancelled, the responses DeGeneres and her cast received after “The Puppy Episode” ranged from hate mail to death-threats.
The very next year, though, in September of 1998, Will & Grace debuted on NBC, serving as an important next step in tackling society’s view on homosexuality and same-sex couples. Its premise revolves around Will Truman, a single, successful, and attractive lawyer and Grace Adler, a feisty, independent, and beautiful interior designer. They live together and even dated back in their college days....