DAVID GREENE, HOST:
2012 was in many ways an important year for gay rights. The president came out in favor of gay marriage. Voters legalized it in three more states. And the American Psychiatric Association removed transgender from the category of mental disorders. A lot has changed since Ellen DeGeneres awkwardly came out on her TV sitcom back in 1997.
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GREENE: Ellen DeGeneres in 1997. NPR's Neda Ulaby turned on the television to see how gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people are being represented culturally today.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The pop culture gay flavor of the minute: white gay dads.
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ULABY: Like on the show, "The New Normal."
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ULABY: It's a mini-boomlet, says real life white gay dad Joshua Gamson. As a sociologist, he says pop culture wants mainly to find gay men as promiscuous and deviant, not monogamous and devoted to their families.
JOSHUA GAMSON: It does seem like a strong counter-stereotype of how gay men have been portrayed over the last, whatever, 50 years.
ULABY: This TV trend took off with "Modern Family."
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MAX MUTCHNICK: "Modern Family" introduced us to the whole world of gay-bies.
ULABY: That's Max Mutchnick. He helped create "Will and Grace." His latest show, also gay-themed, was recently cancelled. But Mutchnick says any show with openly gay characters should reflect people audiences could know in their real lives.
MUTCHNICK: They see that couple in the park and they see that couple at school with these gay-bies and so it feels right.
ULABY: And it apparently feels right for a multi-billion dollar company like Covergirl to hire Ellen DeGeneres to peddle cosmetics.
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ULABY: Or for a leading gay character on a network sitcom to carefully crush stereotypes. Like Max, the dumpy bro on the show "Happy Ending."
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ULABY: Or for a celebrated cable drama to play up a campy subplot about a closeted lesbian teacher in the 1960s.
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ULABY: "American Horror Story" attracts millions of viewers. It was dreamed up by Ryan Murphy, who is also responsible for the shows "The New Normal" and "Glee." We're going to travel back in time to his own experiences back in the 1960s and '70s.
RYAN MURPHY: I was a little sad gay boy growing up in Indiana and my visions of what were gay were what I saw on TV - Paul Lynde on "The Hollywood Squares," who I loved, and Charles Nelson Reilly on the "Password" shows.
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ULABY: All gay audiences had were signifiers and stereotypes, and they clung to them, says Dave Kohan. He's Max Mutchnick's straight collaborator.
DAVE KOHAN: I remember this show called "Love, Sidney."
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ULABY: A lot of gay people do. A ridiculously saccharine sitcom where Tony Randall played a wealthy gay man living with a little girl and her mom. But Kohan remembers the characters' sexuality as barely even an open secret.
KOHAN: He wasn't gay. He was shy. It was another three-letter word ending in Y. We always said he went to shy bars.
ULABY: What a staggering sea change when you fast forward to what's on TV today. "Glee," arguably the gayest show on network television, models what it's like to be a gay kid and even how to parent one, says Ryan Murphy.
MURPHY: The Kurt/Dad story on "Glee" was completely based on the relationship I wished I had had with my father.
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ULABY: Back in the days of "Love, Sidney," even a shy character courted controversy. Today there are so many gay characters, "Glee"'s had to deal with a kind of opposite controversy, fans complaining vociferously about gay characters not being affectionate enough. His fans, says Ryan Murphy, keep track.
MURPHY: If you're going to show a straight couple kiss, show a gay couple kiss, so that they feel like, okay, there's hope for me. There's a way for me. I'm worthy of that happiness.
ULABY: Ensuring equality is something television lacks, says Susan Feniger. She's a celebrity chef who often appears on television. She says if an alien was to come from outer space and learn about gay people just from TV, they'd get a totally false impression.
SUSAN FENIGER: I think if someone were to come from outer space, they might think that it's only men who are out there that are gay, and you might think that they're all a little bit queen-y.
ULABY: Last fall, Gallup released findings about its largest poll ever about gay Americans. Slightly more women identified as gay than men and more African-Americans, Asians and Latinos said they were GLBT than whites. So where's that on TV?
TRISH BENDIX: Well, actually, there have been a lot of women of color, which has been great.
ULABY: Trish Bendix runs a website called After Ellen. It tracks lesbian representation on TV. She rattled off at least half a dozen shows with nonwhite queer female characters - "White Collar," "The Good Wife," "Underemployed" on MTV.
BENDIX: "Pretty Little Liars" has a multiracial lesbian. "Gray's Anatomy," Callie is bisexual and she's also a woman of color, and Santana on "Glee."
ULABY: The problem, says Bendix, is mostly these are exoticized slinky fems in bit roles.
BENDIX: It's like the other is always going to be the other, and so it's like we'll just pile the other-ness on the one person.
ULABY: There's a place where sexual others have long found a natural home on television, on reality shows, all the way back to the very first one. In "American Family," aired on PBS in 1973, it followed a family over an inadvertently eventful year that included a son coming out. Then "The Real World." Then "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy."
Suddenly TV screens swelled with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters on reality shows from "The Voice" to RuPaul's "Drag Race."
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ULABY: Maybe it's because the genre depends absolutely on a sense of authenticity, says Susan Feniger.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, Susan.
ULABY: She competed on "Top Chef Masters."
FENIGER: My partner now of 15 years, I actually wooed her at one of my restaurants.
ULABY: Feniger says if you've had to define yourself as different, you end up with a sense of self useful in reality casting.
FENIGER: Reality TV, if you're comfortable in yourself and who you are, then why wouldn't you be openly out, especially now. Being out is hip right now.
ULABY: Right now. Gay representation on TV is seemingly boundless, winning "The Amazing Race," anchoring the news. There's even an entire gay cable channel, Logo, and gay and straight audiences are relishing gay TV villains that not too long ago might have been denounced as offensive caricatures.
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ULABY: Take Thomas, the evil gay footman on "Downton Abbey." The character once might have been seen as a homophobic stereotype. Now he just blends into an expanding universe. And guess what? It's even bigger than the actual number of gay people in the population. A study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation shows 4.4 of characters on TV are gay.
That's more than the actual percentage of gay Americans. Gallup says it's 3.3 percent. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
GREENE: And you hear Neda's reporting on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.