The Fosters represents a shift in how TV represents gay characters.
There is a problem with gay characters in television stemming back to ’90s with the first major gay-oriented sitcoms. The unintentional bias of white privilege mixed with stereotypical “gay-ness” is forever codified in shows like Will & Grace, Ellen, Xena: Warrior Princess, Queer As Folk and countless gay character cameos in dozens of shows. These shows, in their attempt at appealing to a new emerging audience and to push censorship boundaries, instilled an everlasting impression of what being queer was to be on TV for years and shows to come.
A quintessential gay character, the token gay if you will, began to pop up in show after show in the late ’90s. Often portrayed as good-looking, mid-20s, and unfortunately gay. These characters were rarely reoccurring and played the gag role of comic relief. Where their sexuality is revealed to stun the often interested lead character for a quick laugh. There were few exceptions to this troupe. In Roseanne, the characters Nancy Bartlett (Sandra Bernhard) and Leon Carp (Martin Mull) are possibly the first non-stereotypical reoccurring gay characters to appear in a long-running TV series. They broke boundaries few other shows of the ’90s could. While other shows, like Xena: Warrior Princess, left the very notion of the main characters being lesbian or gay as an unstated truth, choosing to accept fan theory as belated fact rather than directly introducing sexual orientation into canon. Revolutionary shows, such as Roseanne, were few and far between.
Unfortunately, the trend of stereotypical gay characters, as established in the ’90s, continues on today. It is true many of shows featuring gay characters now try to mitigate established tropes and stereotypes, but, their prevalence still holds. Except, of course, The Fosters. Unlike their prime-time counterparts, like Modern Family and The Real O’Neals, The Fosters sidestepped the stereotypical gay character tropes by introducing gay characters experiencing the ups and downs of normal life (normal being relative of course). From Stef Adams-Foster (Teri Polo) and Lena Adams-Foster (Sherri Saum), who are not just a lesbian couple, but a mixed-race lesbian couple, to Jude (Hayden Byerly), their adopted gay son, the show is breaking the rules of television homosexuality.
By opening the doors to leading lesbian characters the show and its writers Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg, challenge the assumption leading out gay characters can only be white males. Or leading lesbian women must still fit the mold of the housewife or can’t be out. They’ve chosen to reflect modern reality rather than stark trends established decades ago. Jude, however, is the most important character of the series. While the story revolves around his older sister Callie (Maia Mitchell) and her struggles with rape and finding her place in the Adams-Foster family, Jude’s struggle, understated as it may be, highlights a real problem in the U.S. and worldwide: gay teen homelessness. Nearly half of all homeless teens and teens in the foster system in the U.S. are gay or transgender. Of the estimated 2.8 million homeless teens, almost 1.4 million identify as homosexual. By exploring Jude’s struggle The Fosters constantly broaches an epidemic which no other gay-oriented show today even discusses.
The Fosters excels at integrating modern problems common to the family drama genre (school shootings, suicide, rape, mental health, and domestic violence to name a few) while, at the same time, balancing those problems with levity and humor. In spite of being a drama series, the show proves to be more eloquent in the presentation of queer characters, neither exaggerating characteristics to the point of caricature nor diminishing the relevance of their sexuality.
In stark contrast, as an example, The Real O’Neals, starring gay actor Noah Gavin as Kenny O’Neal, sticks to established tropes about gay leads and reoccurring characters. The stereotypes seem to be rolled into one ball of flamboyancy and rainbows which is then inserted as “character development.” Yes, The Real O’Neals is funny, it is meant to be a sitcom, and maybe the use of tropes and stereotypes is meant to be a parody about homosexuality in TV; but the unwitting viewer will not see the real queer experience with this character and with this show. Anyone not in on the meta-joke would be left in the dark about the intended commentary.
Over the last four seasons, the issues the Foster family faced are problems any family could face and, with few exceptions, they’re not colored by the narrow-minded lens of the ’90s. The Fosters delved into problems with the foster system, explored issues revolving around the dangers foster kids face, and is still doing something no other show focused on gay characters has done. It created a drama about people who so happen to be gay and the lives they lead, rather than a show about gay characters. The Fosters airs Monday nights on Freeform.