As it becomes more common for teenagers to realize and then tell others -- that they are gay or lesbian, there is also a growing number of teen characters on TV programs geared toward teens going through the same thing. The CW's "90210," which returns Jan. 24, joins the ranks of shows like "Glee," "Gossip Girl," "Pretty Little Liars," "Hellcats," "Greek" and the new MTV series "Skins" in showcasing young, gay roles.
"I felt like the world of '90210' was missing the gay characters that it would realistically have," said Rebecca Sinclair, the CW series' show runner and executive producer, on the writers' decision to show teen character Teddy Montgomery's coming-out process. "If I had created the show, I would definitely have made one of the main characters gay ... And honestly, in a genre that depends on the coupling, decoupling and recoupling of its characters, it behooves us to find the most diverse ways to do that."
So it was that Teddy -- a "90210" character most fans had written off as a rich playboy whose latest infatuation was ex-girlfriend Silver -- hooked up with classmate Ian at the beginning of this season and slowly admitted the truth about himself. And Adrianna Tate-Duncan (Jessica Lowndes), another of Teddy's exes on "90210," experimented with bisexuality last season.
"Coming-out stories are standard, almost a cliche of television stories dealing with gay characters and this goes back to the '70s and the '80s," said Larry Gross of USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, who specializes in lesbians and gays in the media. "What's probably different now is that the age is becoming younger and I think this reflects the fact that the sort of battleground for gay people in society includes high school and probably even includes middle school. It's moved younger in the past decade or so, I think in part because younger people are becoming more aware of their identities."
Teen coming-out stories seem especially relevant, after reports of physical and cyber bullying reached a boiling point last year with a number of gay teen suicides. "Hellcats," a new CW series about college cheerleading, tweaked a plot line this season after it ended up too closely mirroring the events that reportedly led to the death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. Shows like "Glee" have presented intense story lines about bullying, while "Pretty Little Liars" and "Gossip Girl" -- both based on young adult novels in which every character has something salacious jangling in his or her closet -- have included "I know your secret" cyber threats.
"The idea of taking Eric's sexuality and being able to tell that story in the language of the show" was important, "Gossip Girl" executive producer Stephanie Savage said of a story line in Season One in which Serena's younger brother publicly revealed that he had been kissing the handsome blue blood whom ladder-climber Jenny Humphrey was passing off as her boyfriend. "We didn't want to stop 'Gossip Girl' and have a 'very special episode' about Eric."
The take-away in these shows is typically consistent: that you will be accepted for who you are. Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, pointed to the example of Kurt coming out to his dad in "Glee." "We see in 'Glee' in the father's response a very important role modeling on how to show your love for the child who just came out. In a way, [his father] is coming out, too -- as a relative of someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender."
But does this mirror the responses of these shows' viewers?
"I'm often delightfully surprised at how unshocked young people are," said Oliver Goldstick, an executive producer on "Pretty Little Liars." "They just move on. It's like: OK."