On May 24, 2000,Dawson’s Creek made history by broadcasting television’s first “passionate” gay male kiss when Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) found the courage to confess his true feelings for Ethan (Adam Kaufman) in the season three finale, titled “True Love.”
“I just drove a really long way to tell you or sort of to try to explain really -- actually, no, I don’t mean that. I want to show you I can and I’m not afraid to [do] -- ah hell -- this,” Jack says before leaning in to kiss Ethan. In a close-up shot, the two embrace.
Just seconds of screen time, it was something that showrunner Greg Berlanti had to fight with The WB to get in the episode, leading the young TV writer to threaten to quit the series. “There had been joke kisses, but there was never a romantic kiss between two characters, let alone two high-schoolers,” he told Vanity Fair. Ultimately, The WB relented and Berlanti kept his job. “We got our kiss.”
While the teen drama, which turned 20 this year, was largely about its straight characters -- Dawson (James Van Der Beek), Pacey (Joshua Jackson), Joey (Katie Holmes) and Jen (Michelle Williams) -- and their interwoven lives, for a fleeting moment, a gay character was at the center of the story and his romantic feelings were explored.
And even though it wasn’t the first same-sex kiss seen on TV at that point, it was the first of its kind -- Will & Grace hadn’t even gone that far -- and it helped push the boundaries of inclusiveness and LGBTQ representation. Speaking with Outabout the necessity and impact of scenes like that, Berlanti said, “I think you need to include people from all walks of life and that’s really, for television, such an immediate thing.”
Even to have a gay series regular on a hit primetime show was still largely unheard of at the time, leading creator Kevin Williamson to keep Jack’s coming out a secret from the networks and the actor. “I was scared as a gay writer in Hollywood that that storyline would be rejected,” he told The Hollywood Reporter, recalling how he strategized on how to pitch it to The WB, especially since Jack’s character was introduced as someone who comes between Dawson and Joey. “We wanted to bring in all these tentacles to expand the show and complicate the relationships.”
For Kerr, it was a make-or-break moment. Believing it was an “incredibly risky route” to take the character at the time, he had to decide whether or not to embrace the changes, which he ultimately did and became part of TV history in the process. “We’re proud of what we did,” Kerr told Huffington Post. “Every show has a gay character now. It’s no big deal, and that’s the way that it should be.”
In the 18 years since the kiss, inclusive storytelling has expanded onscreen, with barriers continuing to be broken down and ceilings smashed and yes, many gay characters on TV. More than that, shows like Faking It, The Fosters and Pose feature romantic storylines about LGBTQ youth and teenagers and passionate kissing. Berlanti, meanwhile, has been behind some of TV’s biggest LGBTQ milestones, from the first recurring transgender character on Dirty Sexy Money to the gay superheros seen onscreen in his ever-expanding Arrowverse and even showing multiple gay kisses in the same episode on Brothers & Sisters. The percentage of LGBTQ representation on TV is even at an all-time high. Yet, there's still many firsts to be had.
Earlier this year, Berlanti directed Love, Simon, the first gay teen film to be released by a major studio. Outside of the independent films like G.B.F. or Saturday Church, LGBTQ youth has never been at the center of a teen film, especially ones in the same vein as John Hughes’ classic dramedies or the late-‘90s WB era. Debuting to critical acclaim, the film has a 92 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes and recently won Best Kiss at the MTV Movie & TV Awards, marking only the third time behind Brokeback Mountain and last year's Moonlight that a gay, romantic kiss (and not a same-sex kiss played for laughs) took home the trophy.
"I just want to say to every kid: You can live your dreams and wear dresses, you can live your dreams and kiss the one that you love no matter what gender they are," Keiynan Lonsdale, the film's star who has since come out as gay, told the crowd when accepting the award.
When speaking to ET about the importance of the film and inclusive storytelling, Berlanti said, “I think though the whole reason you make art is to create empathy. You feel something and you want someone else to feel it.”