It you look at the trend line for the Gallup poll about American attitudes towards gay marriage, you’ll see that support for same-sex marriage, after cratering for a year, began to climb toward its now-historic height in 2009. A number of factors influenced that shift. Maybe one of them was Modern Family.
It’s impossible to know how much entertainment ever drives society rather than merely reflecting it. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the past five or six years have seen a virtuous cultural cycle. 2009 was the year that audiences met Cam and Mitch, a gay couple living together with an adopted daughter. They weren’t married when the series began—Proposition 8 in their native California forbade them to, and they tied the knot once it was overturned—but they were navigating the challenges of being in a long-term relationship on screen every week as around 10 million people watched at home. The show became one of the few cross-culturally appealing TV works of the Obama years, viewed in red states and blue states, name-checked by Ann Romney and the president alike. A 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll found that 27 percent of likely voters said that depictions of gay characters on TV made them more pro-gay marriage, and there are news accounts of people crediting their newfound sympathy toward gay people to Modern Family.
Of course, television has spotlighted queer people for decades, both in major roles on shows like Will & Grace and Glee, and in minor ones on shows like All in the Family and Golden Girls. Progress has happened fitfully: Many of these programs perpetuated stereotypes, and often they focused on white people at the exclusion of all others. Cam and Mitch have been about as tame as anyone could ask—in contrast to the straight couples they hang out with, they rarely touch, never talk about sex, and make a big deal over kissing in public. But the fact remains that each popular depiction of gay life helped encourage networks to take chances on others, and today there’s unprecedented diversity in representation of sexuality on television, as shown in programs like Empire and Orange Is the New Black.