As I watched the joyous televised celebrations that erupted Wednesday morning in the wake of the Supreme Court's decisions on same-sex marriage, I found myself wondering if TV itself had, in some way, paved a path to this landmark juncture.
Did the medium serve as an agent of social change by making viewers more familiar and comfortable with their gay, lesbian and transgender neighbors? Surely, it played a role.
In 1997, one year after the Defense of Marriage Act was signed into federal law, Ellen DeGeneres spoke into an airport public-address system and announced to all the world, "I'm gay" during her ABC sitcom. The next year, "Will & Grace" debuted on NBC.
Both shows were huge pop-cultural milestones -- ones that garnered substantial fan support, but also provoked an outcry from conservative groups that passionately opposed depictions of "the gay lifestyle" on their TV screens. "Ellen," in fact, routinely carried parental discretion warnings that irked its star.
Now, here we are in 2013 and there is no outcry when Cam and Mitchell, a gay couple, experience the joys and frustrations of parenthood on "Modern Family." There is no parental warning when a transgender character named Unique pours out his feelings on "Glee." And no one really blinks an eye when lesbian love birds Arizona and Callie share a smooch on "Grey's Anatomy."
During MSNBC's coverage of the Supreme Court actions, the cable network referred to a poll that said 53 percent of Americans now support gay marriage. That's a huge change from the early days of "Will & Grace," when most citizens were on the opposite side of the divide. It also was one more reminder of how fast opinions have shifted and prejudices have waned.
Did TV lend an assist? One can argue that the medium simply holds up a mirror to society. Over the past 20-30 years, after all, LGBT activists became much more visible -- and relatable -- as they pushed for equality. Meanwhile, straight people increasingly got acquainted with their gay co-workers, neighbors and relatives and came to realize that no, they aren't second-class citizens ... or aliens.
Still, there's no denying that images on television and in the movies pack a lot of power and influence. That power is especially prevalent on TV, where LGBT characters come into our homes on a daily basis. To that point, I am reminded of what Berkeley resident Leesa Tori, a lesbian, once told me about her reaction to the coming-out episode of "Ellen."
"That was so incredibly important. It was just huge, " she said. "She was my hero."
Even Vice President Joe Biden gave a shout-out to the power of television last year when he spoke on "Meet the Press" of the changing attitude toward same-sex marriage.
"I think 'Will & Grace' probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody's ever done so far," he said. "People fear that which is different. Now they're beginning to understand."
In the years since "Will & Grace," we've watched a gay guy named Richard captivate television viewers on "Survivor." We've had shows called "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "The L Word." We got to know more about Chaz Bono when he became the first transgender contestant on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."
We also witnessed a same-sex marriage on "Brothers & Sisters," and two men become parents on "The New Normal." We looked on as a macho gay couple won "The Amazing Race," and got choked up when the ultra-endearing Kurt Hummel stood up for bullied gay teens everywhere on "Glee."
And that's just a tiny sampling of the many images of LGBT life that continue to flood the small screen.
Of course, the images we witnessed on TV last week were of countless couples expressing jubilation -- and relief -- over a long, hard-fought victory. And it seemed highly fitting that, presiding over MSNBC's morning coverage was a misty-eyed Rachel Maddow, who grew up here in the Bay Area and came out when she was 17.
As she addressed her audience, Maddow acknowledged the many "insults and invective" still attached to the issue of same-sex marriage, but pointed to the visual oomph that the celebratory scenes exuded.
"When you see a monogamous, settled, married couple that wants to be treated equally to other couples like that," she said, "it is hard to turn them into bad guys."