That show was I Spy. Bill Cosby was the actor in question. The year was 1965--when the Watts area of Los Angeles exploded into what was then one of the most destructive urban riots in American history. I Spy was banned in some parts of the South.
I've told this story in a couple of my classes. It leaves the students incredulous--after all, they have grown up accustomed to seeing people who look more or less like them on TV, in movies and videos and on the covers of major magazines and newspapers--not to mention on websites and Youtube.
After hearing about I Spy, they're not surprised to learn that none of the shows or movies I watched in my childhood or adolescence featured Asians, Latinos, Native Americans or even Italians as anything more than stereotypes. But I don't think I will ever be able to convey to them what it's like to grow up without, not only people who look like you, but also people who feel the way you do--or, more to the point, whose brains are constructed like yours--in the images you see every day.
The first time I recall seeing a gay character in a television show was in an episode of All In The Family, in which a friend of lead character Archie Bunker "comes out." In that same episode, another man who is sensitive and not interested in sports or anything militaristic is revealed as straight. That was certainly an advance, but it would be another two decades before any show featured a gay or lesbian--let alone transgender--character.
I occasionally looked at comic books, but I wasn't obsessed with them. That said, I don't recall seeing an LGBT character in any of them.
Well, now it looks like the world of cartooning is changing. Some characters, like Batwoman, Northstar and Green Lantern (Alan Scott) are openly gay or lesbian. Now, in the latest issue of Batgirl, Alysia Yeoh--the roommate of Batgirl/Barbara Gordon--reveals herself to be a transwoman.
It gets better: Batgirl writer Gail Simone has taken care not to conflate Alysia's gender identity with her sexuality. So, Ms. Yeoh is also bisexual.
What's next? Will we find out that she's not sharing only the rent and utility bills with Batgirl? Now that would be a lot of fun!