To be queer on television is typically to be desexualized, to avoid scaring the heterosexual horses. Gay characters may exchange chaste pecks on the cheek or hold hands, and shows may reference their relationships, but that’s about where they stop. Rarely do viewers see flirting or the draw of attraction, let alone the kind of making out and active sex that they might come to expect from heterosexual characters. If television is to be believed, gay people never have sex, and indeed rarely touch each other at all; though they may climb into bed together sometimes, that’s purely because of practicality, not because they’re sexually attracted to each other and would like to act on that attraction.
Turning to television to reflect images of themselves, heterosexuals have lots of examples, but queer viewers have vanishingly few. For them, television provides glimpses and hints of what happens behind closed doors, but the primary presentation of queerness is of a tight, contained package that includes a limited number of roles and stereotypes, all carefully calculated to cause the least offense. A no-holds-barred take on gay sexuality is, apparently, too much for most producers, but Rhimes doesn’t have that inhibition, any more than her gay characters do.
What’s bothering people about the sex scenes on How to Get Away with Murder isn’t so much that gay characters are present, or even the superficial knowledge that gay people have sex: It’s the front and center positioning of that sex as something that’s actually happening. The complaints echo the admonitions to not “act gay” in public, whatever that means, and the perils that await queer people in the real world if they openly express their sexuality, even in the most minor of ways.