LGBT national monument Stonewall nccorig_00004301.jpg
Stonewall Inn near first LGBT national monument
01:02 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is a milestone for the gay-rights movement, one being commemorated with everything from parades to documentaries. It’s also a moment to look back at TV’s history chronicling that fight – one characterized by boldness among producers, often curbed in its early days by the timidity of sponsors.

When then-Vice President Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriage in 2012, he cited “Will & Grace” as a factor in his and society’s evolution on the issue, saying, “I think ‘Will & Grace’ did more to educate the American public more than almost anything anybody has done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

'Will & Grace'

The seeds for that progress in television, however, were planted decades earlier. As a Vulture essay about a groundbreaking “All in the Family” episode noted, “In a moment where critics point to sitcoms as a medium that helped change public opinions about gay rights, we should remember that the process didn’t begin with ‘Will & Grace’ or ‘Glee.’”

Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey on the 'Ellen' episode when she first identifies as gay in 1997

Several obvious landmarks stand out in any discussion of LGBTQ images on television, including the “Ellen” coming-out episode in 1997 and premiere the following year of “Will & Grace,” which surely played significant roles in the strides witnessed over the last two decades.

Long before that, though, there were signature, including the 1971 episode of “All in the Family” in which the bigoted, homophobic Archie Bunker was stunned to discover that an old buddy was gay.

Billy Crystal in 'Soap,' which premiered in 1977

Six years later, Billy Crystal became one of the first openly gay regular characters in a series in “Soap,” the broad ABC satire. Additional breakthroughs followed in series like “Roseanne” and “Friends,” eventually leading to the gay couple in “Modern Family” a decade ago.

If sitcoms offered some of the highest-profile characters, many of the boldest early depictions occurred in made-for-TV movies and miniseries.

In 1972, Hal Holbrook played a divorced dad hiding the fact he was gay from his son in “That Certain Summer,” considered one of the first sympathetic depictions of gay characters on television.

Public television was a pioneer as well, in 1976 broadcasting “The Naked Civil Servant,” an adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s book starring John Hurt; and “Brideshead Revisited.” The 1990s brought “Tales of the City,” based on Armistead Maupin’s writings about life in San Francisco, which, notably, returned twice with miniseries sequels, and comes back again on Netflix this week.

Murray Bartlett and Laura Linney in a scene from Netflix's "Armistead Maupin's Tales f the City."

PBS also broke ground in reality TV with “An American Family,” the 1973 series that featured Lance Loud, whose coming out made him a gay icon. That genre would continue to blaze trails in programs like “The Real World” and “Survivor.”

The 1980s brought AIDS into the conversation, with movies such as “An Early Frost,” an NBC movie about a gay lawyer who must break the news about his AIDS diagnosis to his parents. A few years later, the same network aired “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,” which starred Glenn Close as a lesbian officer who fought the military’s efforts to discharge her.

That movie, notably, aired without a full complement of commercials, as sponsors shied away from supporting a film with that subject matter. The same thing happened when ABC’s “thirtysomething” became the first series to depict two gay men in bed together 30 years ago, a dynamic that caused network officials to think twice about approving such storylines.

Chris Colfer, Darren Criss and  Naya Rivera in Fox's musical dramedy 'Glee'

Nevertheless, network dramas continued to push boundaries, including a gay teen in ABC’s 1990s series “My So-Called Life.” That show (which ran just one season) and others helped pave the way for “Glee,” and even a Disney Channel show like “Andi Mack,” dealing with the particular sensitivities of young people coming out.

Not surprisingly, pay TV could explore such material more boldly – and certainly more explicitly – than ad-supported television, from movies and miniseries like HBO’s “And the Band Played On” and “Angels in America” to the dramas “Six Feet Under” and Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” (2000) and “The L Word” (2004).

Ruby Rose in 'Batwoman'

At this point, seeing LGBTQ characters in featured roles is no longer an occasion, but the current decade has still brought breakthroughs, including series like “Orange is the New Black,” “Transparent” and “Pose.”

Finally, in what seems particularly like a sign of the times, the first TV series starring a lesbian superhero, “Batwoman,” will premiere this fall on the CW network.

While such a list is by no means comprehensive, it’s illustrative of television’s track record in prying open what a 1990s documentary called the “celluloid closet” – a history perhaps best defined less as a steady march than a herky-jerky series of steps forward.