Kate Meyers
May 17, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It was closing time at the department store restaurant and Roseanne’s boss, Leon (Martin Mull), uttered, ”Oh, there’s my blue shirt. I was looking all over for that this morning” to his recently arrived dinner date. This seemingly innocuous observation on the April 30 episode of Roseanne was much more than a sartorial statement: Mull was addressing another man. His comment sent a clear signal to viewers that both his shirt and his sexual identity were no longer in the closet. And Leon’s not alone: thirtysomething and L.A. Law also have had gay or bisexual characters. This season may prove significant after all by being the first to have three high-profile prime-time shows with recurring gay characters.

Matter-of-fact depictions of gay life and sexuality represent a long leap from TV’s first ongoing prime-time gay character, Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal), who appeared on the controversial satire Soap from 1977 to 1981. Dallas’ sexuality was rarely discussed, and he actually sired a child on the show. The ’90s world of thirtysomething is a more accepting place. In the show’s second season, Melissa thought she had found the perfect man in Russell (David Marshall Grant), her artist friend. It wasn’t until she expressed romantic interest that viewers discovered he was gay. This season, two episodes have involved Michael’s gay colleague Peter Montefiore (Peter Frechette). ”One of the things we do is reflect the world as it is,” says producer Richard Kramer. Though ABC lost a reported $1 million in revenue last season when unidentified advertisers pulled out of an episode with Russell and Peter chatting in bed, Kramer says that the network has never tried to censor a script.

Roseanne executive producer Bob Myer intends to continue portraying Leon as the strong character he has been and promises that he’ll have a long and happy future. ”We felt that the best thing to do was not to make a conscious introduction of a gay character but to develop him as a character who happened to be gay.”

L.A. Law introduced a bisexual lawyer this season, hotshot litigator C.J. Lamb. After a February episode in which she planted a lingering kiss on the lips of colleague Abby Perkins, the show’s producers said they had no plans to pursue the romance. Since then they’ve done an about-face (perhaps due to a reported favorable response by viewers), and the women’s romantic leanings continue to be explored. Though the show has lost advertisers because of the tentative lesbian romance, NBC hasn’t suffered financially. ”Some advertisers backed out,” says Pat Schultz, NBC’s director of media relations, ”but we were able to fill their spots with other advertisers.”

But programmers are still skittish. Allen Sabinson, ABC’s executive vice president in charge of motion pictures for TV, just shepherded Our Sons — a film about the mothers of a gay couple dealing with AIDS — onto the air. But he doubts that the story could ever focus simply on the gay men’s relationship. ”My job is to put on movies that will be watched,” says Sabinson. ”I think much of the country would say, ‘What does that have to do with me?”’

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