How TV Brought Gay People Into Our Homes From Will and Grace to Modern Family, studies show getting to know gay characters on television has changed Americans' attitudes toward homosexuality. One researcher says it's an effect that could snowball.

How TV Brought Gay People Into Our Homes

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DARREN CRISS: (as Blaine Anderson) You move me, Kurt. And this duet would just be an excuse to spend more time with you.

RAZ: This is a clip from the hugely popular TV show "Glee." It's about high school glee club. And in that scene, Blaine, who's played by Darren Criss, declares his love for Kurt, who's played by Chris Colfer. Now, what you didn't hear was their kiss, which became one of the most talked about moments of that season. And "Glee" is just one of many shows on TV right now that's featured gay characters.

And Edward Schiappa, a professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, has been looking into this for the past decade. He's been studying the correlation between more gay characters on TV and public attitudes about gays and lesbians.

EDWARD SCHIAPPA: Really with the emergence of the extraordinarily popular "Will and Grace" show, more and more Americans sort of from the safety of their armchair could learn a bit about gay people who they might not otherwise have learned from real life.

RAZ: That was a turning point, "Will and Grace," you say, even though there were gay characters on television before "Will and Grace" premiered in 1998. But that was a turning point.

SCHIAPPA: I think it was a turning point simply because of two factors. One is it was enormously popular. So the popularity of that show and the fact that there were two major gay male characters on the show who were very different allowed the show to do what I call important category work. And what I mean by that is, you know, there were some critics who said, well, Will isn't gay enough and Jack's too gay. Well, actually that's great because you learn that there's diversity within that category that you had in your head before of gay men.


SEAN HAYES: (as Jack McFarland) Will, what do you think, too gay?

ERIC MCCORMACK: (as Will Truman) Yeah. Definitely. But the shirt's good.

RAZ: So viewers saw Will, and he was this kind of straight-laced attorney, and Jack was more sort of flamboyant. But, I mean, they were characters. They were likable, and people could identify with them in some way even if they weren't gay, or they didn't know gay people.

SCHIAPPA: Right. And what our research found was that a couple ingredients, if you will, can lead to attitude change. One of those ingredients is - which you just nailed - is, you know, are they likable, or are they trustworthy? Are they attractive? There's research that says if they're attractive, it can influence your attitudes.

The other part of the mix is, are you learning things through their behaviors and observing them that you didn't know about that category beforehand? If so, then the more complicated your category of whatever it is - lesbians, gay men - the less likely you are to reduce them down to a stereotype.

RAZ: When Ellen DeGeneres came out on her show, "Ellen," in 1997 and, of course, in real life, that was a big deal. I mean, that was a huge sort of television moment.


ELLEN DEGENERES: Why can't I say the word? I mean, why can't I just I'm gay.

SCHIAPPA: Yes, it was a big deal. I was a certainly symbolic breakthrough. But I think that there was a lot of other heavy lifting left to be done, which at least in part has been done.

RAZ: Let me ask you about the show "Modern Family." This is the most popular show in the United States today, not only does it primarily feature a gay couple, but a gay couple that has a child and is in the process of adopting a second child.


JESSE TYLER FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) Cam, what's this scribble on the Vanity Fair about an adoption agency?

ERIC STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) Oh, yeah, they called to say they wanted to reschedule our home visit.

FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) When? Why didn't you tell me? This is kind of important.

STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) Well, when does it say?

FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) Who knows? It disappears into Jennifer Aniston's hair. You got to get a better system.

STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) There is nothing wrong with my system. Ask me anything about any upcoming event, and I can tell you when and where it is.

FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) When is the adoption agency visit?

STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) OK. Is that a five or a curl? Oh, I hope Jen's finally found love.

RAZ: This is a show that's won awards from Catholic organizations. Mitt Romney has talked about "Modern Family" as a show that he really likes. It seems to attract wide appeal, and yet it does have a gay couple at its core.

SCHIAPPA: The idea of their being a gay couple who have children is much more in the mainstream now than it certainly has been recognized at almost anytime prior to that. So there's no question that that show is doing what I've described before as category work. It's changing our understanding of what gay men are like, and particularly as parents.

RAZ: Now that we're seeing - increasingly seeing gay married couples on TV, not just in "Modern Family," but also in "Grey's Anatomy." This seems to be more and more of a trend. And apparently, next season, NBC will be introducing more programs that include gay married couples. What's your sense of how that is going to impact how the American public thinks about this issue?

SCHIAPPA: Part of it, of course, is going to depend on how those portrayals are because if they're not sympathetic or positively portrayed...

RAZ: I mean, so far, they have been.

SCHIAPPA: That's right. So those portrayals, if they continue to be sympathetic, will only contribute to that larger sea change that we see across society, really, in terms of the attitudes towards gay marriage.

RAZ: That's Professor Edward Schiappa. He heads the Communication Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, talking about the correlation between gay TV characters and public opinion. Professor Schiappa, thank you so much.

SCHIAPPA: Thank you for inviting me.

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