Television: the Great Gay Equilizer
Television: idiot box, the great social equalizer, or a little bit of both? One thing's for sure: with the average U.S. home now receiving 104.2 channels beaming quality programming, total crap and everything in between, TV is the dominating force in reflecting and shaping popular culture delivering the same messages and images to states both red and blue, viewers both gay and straight.
Despite the increasing significance of the Internet (still in its relative infancy), TV is where most of us get our news, entertainment, and impressions of a larger world we don't have access to in everyday life. But for the LGBT community, has TV has facilitated awareness and acceptance, or simply mirrored changes in American life? Edge recently spoke with four cultural observers who weighed in on the impact of TV as a vehicle for LGBT equality.
You've Come a Long Way, Gay Baby
From the pre-Stonewall dark ages of virtual invisibility to the spate of tragic made-for TV movies during the plague years of AIDS to the present climate of gay cable networks and prime time shows where gay and lesbian characters have made the leap from tokens to unremarked upon normality, LGBT visibility has come a long way (even if its still has a considerable way to go).
Writer, culture vulture and all around witty fag Frank DeCaro is host of the Frank DeCaro show (on Sirius Satellite Radio's 24/7 GLBT channel Sirius OutQ; airing 11am-2pm, Mon-Fri, Eastern time). As a contributor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, his Out at the Movies reviews and annual Oscar-themed comedy specials regularly exposed straight college boys and their ilk to a subversively lavender spin on mainstream culture.
DeCaro: "There was a time where many Americans could say, 'I don't know any gay people.' But now that we've got GLBT characters - and more importantly out gays and lesbians - on TV, no one can really say that anymore. If you watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show, you know a gay person ... When I was a kid, growing up in the sixties and seventies, we were STARVED for gays on TV - we had Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, and James Coco, thank heaven - but there weren't many happy gay characters. If you were gay on TV, you had to be depressed. If you were a lesbian, you were suicidal. If you were a tranny, you were homicidal. It was absurd. The movies like That Certain Summer were just depressing. Then along came shows like My So-Called Life. The Wilson Cruz character, Ricky, was the first time I'd ever seen myself, so to speak, on television. I adored that character and I really identified with him."
As for how far we've come and how far we've yet to go, DeCaro continued: "Networks like Logo and here! are a huge step forward. Let's hope it has the cultural impact that MTV had. But to do that, it has got to lose the whole earnest gay vibe - or at least balance out all the gay rugby team documentaries with some hilarious drag queen Christmas specials. Everybody from the butchest dyke to the most flamboyant gay needs to see herself or himself on the TV ... The more of us who are out there being our colorful, wonderful selves, the better. I really believe that people are afraid of the unknown, and the more you know, the more accepting you are."
James J. Dean, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, teaches Sociology of Sexualities, Gender, Race and Ethnicity, Culture and Social Theory. Dean points to " ... a general shift from stigmatizing and pathological portrayals of homosexuals from the 1960s to images that emerged in the 1990s that present gays and lesbians as increasingly normal, good and productive participants of society. However, the limit of a singular, isolated gay and lesbian character on a TV sitcom is that he/she does not show a representation situated within the context of gay and lesbian subcultural life. Current shows like Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives and Brothers and Sisters show gay characters of integrity; but all of those shows are examples of gay men, and mostly white gay men."
Jim Colucci is a freelance entertainment writer whose work has appeared in TV Guide, Inside TV, Rosie, and The Advocate. His books include Will & Grace: Fabulously Uncensored and The Q Guide to The Golden Girls (he's also a frequent contributor to partner Frank DeCaro's show). Colucci charts TV's power to facilitate slow but significant progress in terms of visibility for minority groups.
"People in many parts of this country may not have regular exposure to, or know anyone, from a particular group," explained Colucci. "TV and film provide that. If these portrayals coming into our living rooms week after week are at least somewhat positive, they can help turn what was once perhaps frighteningly just a 'black' or 'gay' face into the face of a perceived friend. . .It seems that just as the 70s were getting rolling with gay references on Three's Company and Showtime's Brothers, AIDS hit, and changed everything ... what a weird time the early and mid-80s were in terms of attempting to depict gay life. With so many gay men suddenly dying so tragically young, attempts at levity or comedy with gay themes were often viewed as in bad taste. And so with AIDS as such a touchy issue, writers just avoided gay characters altogether.
"Eventually," he continued, "when studios and networks did get the courage to mention AIDS, they painted us all as victims. Whereas in the swinging 70s we were shown as sexual libertines, now gay men were seen as sexless 'noble homos,' just trying to hang onto life. I think it convinced not just straight people of that, but some of us as well."