Fifteen years ago, in an episode entitled "True Love," "Dawson's Creek" featured the first "passionate" kiss between two men on primetime television. Marked primarily by the Joey-Pacey-Dawson love triangle, the Season 3 finale showed just seconds of kissing as part of secondary plot point for Jack. Still, the episode is a milestone in the timeline of gay representation in pop culture -- one worth talking about in the context of the current state of acceptance surrounding same-sex love and the progress that still needs to be made.
At the end of the episode, Jack (who comes out in Season 2 after dating Joey) travels to Boston in an attempt to win back Ethan, gathering his courage before leaning in for a kiss. The camera closes in on their lips before Jack is interrupted by the realization that Ethan has a boyfriend (who is sitting a few feet away).
The episode's director, James Whitmore, told The Huffington Post that he didn't push for anything specific, opting to let Kerr Smith (Jack) take control of the character in that defining moment. "With the kiss, the actors committed," he said. "I left them alone and I wanted to see what it would end up being. It was quite extraordinary."
Once it had happened, Whitmore knew he had something special, something that no one else was doing on TV at the time. As he tells it, there was a bit of nervousness from executives at The WB, though they ultimately decided that even if they received backlash, airing the scene would be in their favor.
"The truth is TV is a business of ratings," Whitmore said. "If you've got something exciting that's going to happen on TV, everybody tunes in and watches it."
The importance of Jack's arc, of course, extended far beyond that brief kiss. In "True Love" specifically, after Dawson's ugly sobbing and before Joey and Pacey (literally) sail off into the sunset, Jack comes home for an emotional discussion with his father. Their dialogue works to deconstruct the intensity of the kiss, as he opens up about the struggle of feeling so different and finally finds his father's hard-earned acceptance.
Whitmore said the deep compassion of that second scene can be credited to writer Greg Berlanti, who modeled Jack's narrative after his own experiences as a teenager. "Greg was very open, courageous and smart about talking about what he dealt with growing up. [His] writing in that show really explored the conflict and the pain of these poor people who felt they couldn't be honest about who they were," Whitmore said. "It was very painful. And it was one of the first times on TV that they ever even show that kind of thing."
Jack was not conceived as a gay character. Creator Kevin Williamson introduced him as Joey's boyfriend, planning to add him to the mix as the primary source of romantic tension for the couple. Before coming out publicly himself, Williamson decided he needed a gay character on the show. He took Smith out for coffee to see what he thought of changing the role.
Smith was hesitant. "I'm thinking in my head, 'Wow, I just moved to Los Angeles, I just landed probably one of the best shows on television at the time for my demographic, and now he wants me to take this incredibly risky route with the character.' So, I had to make a decision," he told HuffPost. "It was either 'I go for this' or I probably would have left. He probably would have found somebody else to do it."
After seeking advice from his family and representation, he decided to embrace the changes. Smith thought of Williamson's suggestion as a groundbreaking opportunity, while remaining painfully aware of how easy it is to be stereotyped in Hollywood.
Smith made moves to ensure his reputation wasn't affected. "I made it a point to choose projects in that three month window we had when we were shooting to choose characters that were very different, like the meathead in 'Final Destination,' things like that," he said. "I picked characters who were very different, just so I could get out of that potential pigeon hole."
Like all of the core characters on "Dawson's Creek," Williamson based Jack, in part, on himself. Around Season 3, Berlanti further infused his own experiences as a young gay man. They wrote many of the episodes together, striving for compassionate and genuine storytelling.
"The gay storyline was always really special to me, and to Greg," Williamson told E! News. "Greg and I wrote the coming-out storyline for [Episodes] 214 and 215. It was spawned out of something that happened in Greg’s childhood, and then I took it and it was sort of my family’s reaction."
Smith learned to understand the pain Jack felt by applying aspects of his own adolescence. "Those scenes are tough," he said. "You just have to substitute in there whatever fits your heart for the scene."
As for that kiss in "True Love," Smith knew he was making history, but he thought more in terms of being honest to the character's intentions. "I didn't want it to be just an innocent little peck," he said. "That's not what Jack was trying to tell Ethan [...] The whole point is that he was really going for it. That's what that kiss needed to be."
Whitmore has gone on to direct many episodes for hit TV shows, including "The Good Wife" (cut to Kalinda hooking up with every slinky lesbian on the Chicago law scene). Over the years, he has seen standards shift, despite the fact that there is still so much bigotry.
"There are still extremely racist and homophobic people all over this country," he said. "They're hard at work trying to manifest their belief system. The idea of hating gays is going to be here for a while now, but the truth is you legally can't do it anymore! It's bullshit."
There exists a prevailing (and ridiculous) idea that a gay sex scene is somehow more salacious than a straight one -- a sentiment evidenced by Billy Crystal's comments about how things have changed since he played one of the first gay men on TV, on "Soap" in the 1970s.
Crystal openly took issue with the portrayal of the "lifestyle" on current shows. "Sometimes I think, 'Ah, that’s too much for me,'" he said while promoting "The Comedians" at a Television Critics Association Panel in March. "Sometimes, it’s just pushing it a little too far for my taste."
In spite of the prevalence of this sort of homophobic perspective, more shows than ever are pushing for more equitable sexual representation.
Previously, each of the most groundbreaking shows was off the broadcast spectrum (see: "Ellen" or "Will & Grace"). Perhaps The WB gave the okay to the "Dawson's Creek" kiss back in 2000 because the show was aimed at a younger audience. Typically, broadcast networks are wary of alienating conservative advertisers, where as premium cable shows are allowed more latitude via the subscription model. Now, there are more gay characters on all-access channels than ever before. And that's important.
According to Carole Bell, an assistant professor at Northeastern University who has done extensive research on gay representation in pop culture, simply seeing gay characters on the small screen can foster acceptance. In an interview with HuffPost, she explained research which substantiates this impact: "For people who didn't have a lot of exposure previously, who didn't have friends or family members that they knew of, watching shows with gay characters actually made a significant difference in prejudice reduction," she said.
This is not so simple as the idea that exposure breeds acceptance. People make connections with characters in a way that mirrors real life relationships, a phenomenon called "parasocial contact." "The idea is that TV viewers and other people consuming fictional entertainment can feel emotionally attached to the characters that they're watching," she explained. "Under certain conditions, when they do that, it will have a positive effect on the way they see a minority group."
"There are also studies about the effect this has on gay youth," she added. "It's important for making them feel visible and not so isolated. It helps, to see those images, it helps to make people more comfortable."
Bell emphasized that the form that representation takes also makes a difference, and could still use quite a bit of work. "Quantity of representation is important because visibility is important for members of oppressed groups in society," she said. "But just increasing the number of LGBT characters alone is not enough."
More often than not, gay characters fill secondary roles. (There hasn't been a gay character in a title role since "Ellen.") And they are often subject to stereotyping. (Bell points to the "effeminate" behavior of Jack on "Will & Grace.") Unsurprisingly then, intimacy between same-sex couples is rarely depicted. Consider the fact that in a 2007 study of six shows, researcher Victor D. Evans found that 80 percent of all intimate scenes between same-sex couples occured on Showtime's "Queer as Folk."
That said, things are getting better. In 2013, the GLAAD Network Responsibility index did not rate a single channel as "excellent" in its grading of gay representation on TV; in 2014, ABC Family, HBO and MTV made the list.
This past fall featured a banner lineup for LGBT-inclusive programming. On Fox, "Empire" is dealing with sexuality in the context of a hyper-masculine African-American family. This can't be overstated: patriarch Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) owns a club called Leviticus -- the book of the bible which ostensibly condemns any "man who lies with a male." Within this first season, Lucious' son Jamal has had a powerful, public coming-out scene in spite of his father's aggressive bigotry, been depicted living with and in bed with his now-ex boyfriend, and, most recently, taken up with a new love interest.
Also in its freshman season, ABC's "How to Get Away with Murder" has made waves with some of the raciest gay sex scenes to date. Shonda Rhimes has consistently provided some of broadcast television's foremost gay couples on "Grey's Anatomy." Before their divorce this season, Callie and Arizona had one of the longest lasting same-sex marriages on TV to date. The Shonda-produced "HTGAWM" takes things a step further by introducing audiences to casual sex, rather than a committed relationship. It's also worth noting that Connor is a dark, complex character, who breaks the mold of more typical stereotypes surrounding young, gay men as seen on network broadcast during primetime.
"I am glad that people are talking about it and that it's sparked the conversation. I think that that's the aim of entertainment," Jack Falahee (Connor) told E! News. "If we can have a dialogue about it, it can become more accepted."
That dialogue started up again when the same-sex kiss between two 13-year-olds on ABC Family's "The Fosters" marked the youngest gay kiss in the history of TV.
The episode was powerfully and succinctly defended against detractors by the show's creators. "When people question the scene my response has been: 'Everyone has a first kiss and you remember it. How old were you? Ninety percent of people who have an answer come back and say, 'I was 12, 13 and 14 years old,' and I say, 'Exactly. It was time to see this, time to put this up for the world,'" Bradley Bredeweg said in an interview with The Wrap. "Then people understand, they’re able to wrap their heads around it."
With each exposure understanding increases, for the closeted teens hoping for acceptance and the uninformed bigots finally finding a way to relate. There's certainly progress to be made, but there is more gay representation on TV than ever before and with each new season that representation is growing more nuanced and influential.
Looking at the state of TV now, Smith is really talking about a different world when he describes shooting that "Dawson's Creek" episode back in 2000 or worrying that even fictional gayness could derail his career. All these years later, he is able to look back with pride and take his share of credit for the progress that has been made since Jack gave Ethan that "passionate" kiss.
"Are you kidding?" he laughed, when asked about how things have changed. "Every show has a gay character now. It's no big deal, and that's the way that it should be ... We're proud of what we did. We paved the way for the way things are today."