The first same-sex wedding on American television occurred not on Will & Grace or Ellen or one of the other milestone LGBTQ-themed sitcoms of the late 1990s. No, it occurred, somewhat quietly, in October 1991 on the three-season Fox sitcom Roc — and the episode containing that wedding is a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of the early days of a journey that culminated in the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country. (The Golden Girls had aired a gay "commitment ceremony" earlier in 1991, but the word marriage wasn't said.)
Even though Roc frequently had a political bent, it's still a little amazing to see the show tackle same-sex marriage so forthrightly and seriously in 1991. And in its portrayal, it's possible to see both how much American society has changed in the 24 years since the episode aired and how little things have actually shifted.
Near the end of the episode, Roc says he's not yet comfortable with his uncle being gay, but he's learning to be "comfortable with being uncomfortable," which is a big step for him. Those words are as good an encapsulation as any of the country's journey — or of any journey toward greater civil rights.
Why Roc was the perfect show to do this
Roc was a star vehicle for the great stage actor Charles S. Dutton, who'd found some success in TV and film but had yet to really break through. He played a warm-hearted but struggling garbage collector in Baltimore, who was always trying to do the right thing by his family, represented by his wife, father, and younger brother.
The series is perhaps best known for its second season, in which every episode was presented live, rather than being taped, and for its frank look at the social issues impacting black Americans in the recession-ridden early '90s. There weren't many sitcoms even talking about this stuff in 1991, and there especially weren't sitcoms dealing with it from the perspective of those most affected by it, even with the huge success of the often very political Roseanne. Murphy Brown could talk about poverty all she wanted, but she was still a highly paid TV journalist. Roc actually had to live paycheck to paycheck.
But because Roc was such a good guy, he was always trying to build up his family and his community, and that led directly to the series' eighth episode, "Can't Help Loving That Man," scripted by Jeffrey Duteil. In it, Roc's uncle, Russell (played by Richard Roundtree, a.k.a. Shaft himself), comes out to his family, then reveals that he's about to marry a man named Chris. This is almost too much for Roc's father and Russell's older brother, Andrew, to handle, but things take an even bigger turn when Chris shows up at Roc's house — and turns out to be white.
"Can't Help" is chock full of the sorts of easy gay jokes that typified a lot of '90s comedies featuring gay characters. At one point, Andrew insists that he didn't think black people could be gay, because they weren't descended from "sissy" Europeans. The joke is meant to be on his regressive attitudes, but also not really. Like Archie Bunker in All in the Family, everything Andrew says speaks for some portion of the audience that's just as uncomfortable with this idea as he is.
But if the burden of Russell's dignity is placed almost entirely on Russell himself, then Roundtree steps up ably to the occasion. When Andrew tells him this is just a phase, spurred by having married an "ugly woman," Russell says that, no, he's been gay his whole life and just lying to himself. And when Andrew refuses to have any part of Russell and Chris's wedding (held in Roc's living room, presumably so nobody had to build a new set), Russell deals with the problem with quiet dignity.
In its own way, this is a rough repeat of a storyline that American sitcoms played out with black characters over and over again throughout the 1960s and '70s. They were there to be as dignified as possible, while the prejudiced white people worked through their issues. What made the battle for gay rights so different was that anybody could be gay, so, similarly, anybody could be prejudiced.
How this episode reflects America's journey toward acceptance
That's what makes "Can't Help," all its clunky jokes and stereotypes aside, so amazingly reflective of America's journey. The characters don't make it all of the way to full acceptance of gay rights by the end of the episode. Instead, they simply make peace with the fact that they still love Russell, no matter the gender of the person he's marrying (or the color of that person's skin).
But the series tips its political hand very late in the episode when Roc (always intended to be the most sensible character) tells his father, "We ain't the only minority that's had it rough in his country." Roc positions the fight for gay rights as on a continuum with all other civil rights battles, and that was something few other elements of pop culture were dealing with at the time.
But it also understands that any battle for civil rights isn't just a political war but a personal one — and that is true of no struggle more than the struggle for LGBTQ rights. The remarkable strides of LGBTQ rights in the US have been driven as much by quiet conversations and strong friendships as much as anything else. Being homophobic is simple when you don't know any gay people. It's far more complicated when your own brother or uncle is gay. That's when you start to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and that's when real change can happen.
No matter what, Roc tells his father late in the episode, Russell is "still your brother." Roc didn't get everything right, but it did get this right. The ties of blood and friendship are far, far stronger than anything that could be thrown at them, and so long as that was true, growing support for the rights of LGBTQ Americans was inevitable.