'Modern Family': Why Marriage Equality Will Always Be a Part of the Sitcom's Legacy

Modern Family Wedding
Getty Images/ABC

In April 2020, the ABC sitcom came to an end -- but not without making the case for marriage equality during its 11-season run.

In March, ahead of Modern Family's series finale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson reflected on the legacy of the groundbreaking ABC sitcom, which followed the lives of the Pritchett family, including gay couple Mitchell and Cameron (Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet). “When it premiered 11 years ago, this couple adopting a baby that was part of the main family was revolutionary. And now it's not, which is great," the actor told ET, adding that “one of my favorite episodes remains the wedding episode.”

After the 2013 legalization of same-sex marriage in California, where the show took place, season 5 opened with Cam and Mitch deciding to get married after hearing about the news. Then, after a season of going through the motions of preparing for a wedding, Cam and Mitch finally said “I do” in the season finale, “The Wedding.” 

In typical Modern Family fashion, the two-part episode saw the couple scrambling with last-minute problems, including a wildfire threatening to destroy their venue, before ending with a romantic cliffside wedding. There, Mitch was walked down the aisle by his father, Jay -- after overcoming his own homophobia about the couple's marriage -- as his brother-in-law, Phil, presided over the ceremony.

“It did feel like we were having this weird sort of parallel because the show was being very informed by what was happening in the world,” Ferguson said later in the Apple TV+ docuseries Visible: Out on Television. The actor and his husband, Justin Mikita, got married in July 2013. “Then, a few months later, my father on TV is walking me down the aisle, and I find myself fictionally getting married to my TV husband.”  

The season 5 finale first aired in May of 2014 to an audience of 10.45 million viewers. While it was written in reaction to the defeat of Prop 8 in California, it came one year ahead of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 2015, making same-sex marriage legal for the entire country, and influenced the conversation around the legal battle.

As The Atlantic points out, after dipping the year before, support for the issue reached new heights in 2009 -- the same year Modern Family premiered and “audiences met Cam and Mitch,” Spencer Kornhaber writes. “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.”

And the finale, The Daily Beast notes, was just the latest in Modern Family's ever more inclusive depiction of the couple, even if it was at times by the demands of viewers. “First came the petition to have them kiss. Then the petition to have them kiss more. And, finally, the petition to have them finally make it legal,” Kevin Fallon writes.

By the 2012 presidential election, “endorsing Modern Family became a necessary step on the campaign trail,” he adds, with the Obamas standing fully behind it while Ann Romney even mentioned the series by name. 

“It’s nice we’re so widely accepted and so many people like us,” Ferguson told ET in September of 2012. “I love that Ann Romney loves our show, the Obamas like our show. I feel it’s a true testament that we are for everyone, that there’s something for everyone in our show and it’s exciting to know the leaders of our nation are watching what we do.”

Earlier that same year, Vice President Joe Biden vocalized his support for same-sex marriage and President Barack Obama formally announced his change in position, stating officially, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Then, three years later on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that all states were to “issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other jurisdictions.”

“Hugely emotional that marriage equality has finally come to the U.S. history,” Ferguson posted to Twitter at the time. “Love ALWAYS wins.”

Did the majority cite Modern Family in its decision? No, but there’s no denying that the series had a hand in normalizing same-sex marriage. Since then, everything from Steven Universe to Schitt’s Creek have seen its characters legally wed on screen. 

Five years after marriage equality in the U.S., “The Wedding” episode, if nothing else, captures a moment in time, when the nation came together behind their favorite gay TV couple and the LGBTQ community alike. And for Ferguson, after watching clips back recently, “it really still hits home [for] me,” he told ET.

“Like many shows that opened the door for us, I hope that we're one of those shows that holds it open for other people,” Ferguson continued. “I'm very proud of the work that we've done on Modern Family [and] I can't believe that I was lucky enough to represent that character on TV for 11 years. I feel very honored.”