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3 times TV made it easier for LGBT people across America to come out

Keith (Mathew St. Patrick, left) and David (Michael C. Hall) of Six Feet Under are among TV's most significant gay characters of the past 20 years.
Keith (Mathew St. Patrick, left) and David (Michael C. Hall) of Six Feet Under are among TV's most significant gay characters of the past 20 years.
HBO

Today is the 26th annual National Coming Out Day, begun by the Human Rights Campaign in 1988 "as a reminder that one of our most basic tools [in the struggle for equality] is the power of coming out." Over the past quarter of a century (and change), LGBT rights have made great headway, although there is still work that needs to be done on this front. HRC also offers this helpful guide to coming out. If you, yourself, are considering doing so, it's well worth a read!

Of course, every unique coming out story helps along the cause of LGBT visibility. But it also seems likely that fictional coming out tales featuring film and television characters had a dramatic influence on the push for equality, too. As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff noted in the A.V. Club. "I think it's undeniable that the relatively rapid normalization of gays and lesbians within American society (a struggle that continues, I should add) has been helped by how many popular sitcoms in the '90s had a gay character. … If people on TV didn't seem too upset by it, then why should the viewers be upset?"

To celebrate National Coming Out Day and to celebrate how far we've come in a relatively short time, here are three memorable TV coming out moments.

1) Ellen

"What's his name?" "Susan."

It's no exaggeration to say that television — and, really, American culture at large — was fundamentally altered on April 30, 1997. On that night, ABC aired Ellen's now famous coming-out episode, "The Puppy Episode." The two-parter was the highest-rated episode of DeGeneres's series, pulling in a record 42 million viewers. It even won an Emmy and a Peabody. Ellen would be canceled one year later, largely due to low ratings, but in part because of this episode. In spite of the backlash Ellen received for her decision to televise her coming out, it's impossible to deny her legacy: within a few months of Ellen's cancellation, NBC aired Will and Grace, a show featuring two out-and-proud gay men.

2) Will and Grace

"I think you're missing the silver lining, here. When you're old and in diapers, a gay son will know how to keep you away from chiffon and backlighting."

It's hard to imagine a world where Will and Grace would have made it to TV without Ellen. And the series subtly acknowledged its debt to Ellen when she appeared in season three as, of all things, a nun.

Although the series was named after its main characters, it was supporting players Jack and Karen who quickly became fan favorites, due to their larger-than-life antics. Jack, played by the inimitable Sean Hayes, was out. He was proud. And he didn't give a damn about who knew it — except for his mother, whom he kept in the dark. In one of the most memorable episodes of the series, Jack's friends encouraged him to finally come out to his mom, which resulted in some terrific TV. The comedy of the situation came from how absurd it seems that anyone — let alone his own mother, who, as Karen points out, isn't headless! — could not know that Jack's gay. And yet, there are many LGBT people who, for reasons they can't always explain, go to great lengths to hide in plain sight. Though he might have seemed so obviously gay, Jack's coming out helped tell that story.

3) Six Feet Under

"What …. part of you isn't my son? You're all my son."

"You know, Rico, I'm a homo." And with that, David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) came out on Sex Feet Under, one of the most beloved and acclaimed shows of the 2000s. Viewers knew David was gay the entire time, knowing full well that he and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) were more than "racquetball partners," as David liked to put it.

David slowly begins to come out toward the end of the first season, and the entire journey makes for fantastic television. The scene that has stuck with me all these years later is when David finally has the coming out conversation with his mother (Frances Conroy).

The writing of this scene is absolutely brilliant, weaving together themes of gayness and death. At one point, David accuses his mother of looking at him like she looks at a corpse — "It revolts you, but you make yourself bear it." Hall's and Conroy's performances are masterful, which is why this moment remains authentic more than a decade later and why David and Keith remain some of the most powerful portrayals of gay men ever seen on television.

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