From ‘Will & Grace’ To ‘Glee,’ This New Doc Explores The History Of ‘Playing Gay’

Here's how far we've come and where we still need to go.

Given the progress we've made representation-wise, it's almost hard to believe that there was a time when you couldn't see LGBT characters on your TV screens -- a time before "Modern Family" started taking home all the awards and before binge-watching "Orange Is The New Black" or "Orphan Black" was an option.

That history -- for most of us who were raised on better representation -- is something we never really get the chance to unpack. Which is why LGBT activist and Human Rights Campaign co-founder David Bender came up with the idea for "Playing Gay: How America Came Out on Television," the new documentary he's trying to fund via Kickstarter by August 18, 2015.

With interviews from actors and creators from shows like "Glee," "Transparent," "Orange is the New Black," "Empire," "My So Called Life," "Ellen" and "Will & Grace," the film is going to follow the ways that LGBT people on our TV screens helped the country's perception of the community change for the better. But, first, they need a bit of support from the people who want to see this story come to life.

Why Representation Really, Really Matters

Dannielle Owens-Reid, co-founder of LGBTQ organization Everyone Is Gay, was originally brought on board to help consult for the Kickstarter campaign. And pretty quickly, she said, she signed on to the project -- it was that important.

"I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, so there was no gay community that I knew of. I didn’t have any gay aunts and uncles... gay wasn’t even a thing that existed for me. I had no idea what it was like to be a gay adult in this world," she told MTV News. "I think [representation] is important because if you don’t see it, you don’t understand that it’s possible for you."

Wilson Cruz, one of the executive producers and the actor who played Rickie Vasquez (the first openly gay teenage character on network TV!) on "My So-Called Life," told MTV News how he got involved with the film, and why it matters so much to him.


"This is my first Executive Producer credit and I decided to do it because, I think it’s safe to say, that telling the stories of LGBT people has been my life’s work," Cruz said. "Whether as an actor or through my work with GLAAD, I’ve always believed that telling our stories through television was one of the most effective and intimate ways of changing hearts and minds."

When Cruz was growing up, he didn't see a lot of himself in characters on TV, and even representation on the few shows (like "SOAP" and "Dynasty") that did feature LGBT characters were far from ideal.

"Needless to say, they weren’t exactly representative of my experience as a young gay man of color trying to understand who he is and where he fits in. I wanted what everyone wants: to be seen and to be understood," Cruz said. "That’s what LGBT representation means to me... Our televisions serve as mirrors held up to society, and if you’re not included in those stories, you feel invisible and less than."

While this film is a celebration and "a love letter" to the country for all the progress that has been made, Cruz said that it's also a reminder "not to take it for granted" and to push for more inclusive and complex representation of LGBT individuals.

"I think we’ll see that the gains we’ve made as a culture in understanding LGBT people were made because we stood before the American people and told our truths through the stories we told on television," Cruz said. "But I also believe that we’re going to see that we have a lot of work to do in terms of the diversity of the stories we tell. The fact of the matter is, an overwhelming percentage of those characters were and are about gay white men. As we move forward, we have to do a better job of communicating that the LGBT community is as diverse as the rainbow flag we wave as a symbol of our community."

For Some Resources On LGBT Representation And Anti-LGBT bias, Check Out Look Different.