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From Will Truman to Pray Tell: The evolution of TV's queer leading men

The way male characters in shows like “Pose” and “The Politician” reflect different facets of the LGBTQ experience shows how far TV has come since "Will & Grace."
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"We are at the forefront of telling our own narrative," says Billy Porter, whose early career was marked by demands to play stereotypical roles -- when he was offered parts at all.Matt Winkelmeyer/VF20 / WireImage

In 2001, Eric McCormack made history by winning the lead comedy actor Emmy for portraying a gay man on “Will & Grace.” Back then, the challenge was reflecting the gay experience as accurately as his co-star Debra Messing’s plotlines as a straight character in the NBC sitcom about two best friends.

“We needed to show that the most accurate way to represent those two relationships was that they were always equal — which, probably, they weren’t in the old days,” McCormack says. “It was easier to have handsome guys come on and date Deb Messing. Mine were handled with a lot more attention and a lot of being careful.”

Today, as McCormack is eligible for a final nomination as the titular Will, his character is joined by a new class. The race includes Ben Platt, who portrays sexually fluid teenager-turned-early 20s politician Payton Hobart in Netflix’s “The Politician”; Matt Bomer’s Jamie Burns, a man whose intimate connection with an old friend brings about carnage in Season 3 of USA’s “The Sinner”; and Billy Porter’s Pray Tell in “Pose,” an HIV-positive ballroom emcee who got to explore a romance in the second season of the FX drama. The list of characters reflecting different facets of the queer experience — and the fact that Platt, Bomer and Porter are all openly gay (McCormack is straight) — shows how far TV has come since Will was standing more or less alone.

Porter, last year’s lead drama actor Emmy winner, has seen the show’s storytelling grow even more complex in its second season. In addition to performing an intimate love scene, Porter was also a part of a story about the re-emergence of trauma from parental abuse. This allowed the actor to draw from personal experience.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Porter says. “I’ve been living for this moment to be able to tell my story. And as dark and as rich as the story is, I have a firsthand connection to it. I reached back to my memories and, every moment, just tried to share those with the world.”

That potential — of creating art in part by drawing upon experience, and converting the tragic into catharsis — is what queer actors taking on the spotlight allows.

“We are at the forefront of telling our own narrative,” says Porter, whose early career was marked by demands to play stereotypical roles — when he was offered parts at all. “It’s not at the hands of other people who are outside the community anymore. It’s so dreamy — I just feel so blessed to have lived long enough to see this day.”

Matt Bomer’s storyline on “The Sinner” provides less uplift than creepiness, but reflects the possibilities available beyond what’s easily categorizable.

“It was very important for Derek [Simonds, the show’s creator] that it not be about a gay relationship, but about two men who had achieved this profound sense of intimacy where they had a shared sexual history,” Bomer says. “It’s transcended that and become a romance with a philosophy and a sort of rage against society at large.”

Just as his character exists beyond the nameable — Bomer describes the season as “‘Strangers on a Train’ mixed with ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ mixed with ‘Macbeth’ as interpreted by Patricia Highsmith” — so too does the actor see his own sexuality as existing somewhat apart from the character. (He played opposite Chris Messina, who is straight.)

“What tends to be what I am hired for is to have chemistry, but I don’t think it’s because of my comfort with my sexuality,” he says. “A lot of it just depends on the actors you get to work with and how open they are to come to set and drop the ego and play together and create something new.”

All of which might have been too tangled for TV when “Will & Grace” was on the air in its first run in the 1990s — and which made it a nostalgic throwback in its three victory-lap seasons. It knew its limitations: “To do a really big, special episode of ‘Will & Grace’ about the trans experience would have been taking on too much,” McCormack says. “But what we can do is show two very different gay men finding happiness, being in committed relationships, having a child.”

While “Will & Grace” was built for a different TV moment — one before characters on “The Politician,” “Pose” and “The Sinner” could probe queer life a bit more deeply — and was a comedy besides, McCormack sees in its final seasons a depiction of Will that was as flawed — and gratifyingly so — as his three friends.

“He wasn’t on some sort of pedestal,” McCormack says. “We’re all people, and we’re all growing.”

So, too, is the medium, allowing for more complication in the lives of characters that existed in very different forms a generation before.

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