Television: the Great Gay Equilizer

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 5, 2007

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."

Even so, Colucci also points out that decades-old shows, when done well, are still relevant to the current generation: "Take The Golden Girls, for example. That show began airing in 1985 - before today's teens and college kids were even born. Yet there is something about it that speaks to the kids of today, and so they watch it in huge numbers. And it happens to be a show with quite a few gay-positive portrayals and messages - where for a change it's the straight, older woman who is the slut."

Ron Becker is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Miami University. His book, Gay TV and Straight America, was published in 2006. Becker: "In the 1990s, we saw a move away from the coming out narratives to stories where gays and lesbians were already out and part of the world. But the continued expansion of reality TV formats makes such images more important because they are more common. The spate of HGTV home makeover shows or real estate shows like House Hunters that periodically include a same-sex couple (though still caught up in the class bias inherent in such programs) are the perfect example. These programs help to reinforce the notion for urban gays and the socially liberal straight viewers who often watch these shows that we live in a post-closet world. Such an approach of course lets people off the hook for confronting and fighting the continued discrimination the LGBT community faces but is wrapped in the self-satisfied sense that the battle is won ... For what we might call post-closet TV, gay men who are not out - who fail to identify with the label waiting for them, who refuse to accept the straight world's tolerance, who expose the gaping hole in this post-civil-rights logic - are a real problem. To maintain confidence in the clarity of the line between gay men and straight men, these closet cases must be helped out."

TV's Social and Cultural Influence

For Becker, TV's social and cultural influence is undeniable, but inevitably bound to the limits of a for-profit enterprise: "Television, especially in the U.S., means commercial interactions. Images get caught up in the commercial imperatives of advertiser-supported and for-profit TV. At times, that dynamic has helped some segments of the gay community gain greater access to network television and therefore greater cultural visibility. In the 1990s, the changing strategies of network executives who were interested in reaching an audience of upscale, well-educated adult consumers who wanted edgier programming saw gay material as a viable option ... But what was let in tended to be those images of gay life that were palatable to certain viewers and to advertisers. Gays and lesbians were often represented as relatively upscale, white, urban people who simply needed social acceptance. But it didn't address and therefore failed to seriously advance the experiences of LGBT people of color, those living in small towns or rural areas, or those facing economic discrimination because of their sexual or gender identities. Such distortions expose the real limitations of television as a site for attaining equality.

"These images may facilitate a certain level of acceptance among straight viewers - an easy sense of self-satisfaction that comes from feeling as though watching the coming out episode of Ellen or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy means one is supporting gay rights. Yet this type of acceptance may actually lead people to think that that is enough. The way gay-inclusive programming has often been framed as revolutionary certainly encourages such sentiments."

But do we, in general, tend to credit or blame the media for our self-image and world view? Does watching at TV show trump our more personal, day-to-day experiences? Becker points out that: "There are lots of factors that shape our sense of self and the world, but we do live in an era where the media play an ever increasingly important role in our social world. It is driving how our political system operates, how our family life is understood, how we teach material in schools. Do we credit or blame the media too much? Maybe, but we must consider its impact. To ignore it would be na?ve. However, the media system in the U.S. makes television inherently problematic as a site from which to create political change." Dean: "There is a lot of variability in people's experiences of mass media and how they relate to TV characters and shows. And I'm sure some people would argue that the mass media is as important as or more important in their experiences of understanding homosexuality than social interactions."

For Colucci, TV's true impact has to be seen to be felt; and with modern technology such as TiVo comes the chance to consume more and therefore be increasingly aware: "In the old days, gay content seemed so few and far between, perhaps even more rare than it was, if only because it was so much more difficult to access. Would you have to be home to catch it, or know enough to set your VCR? Nowadays, it's all there, in central repositories like YouTube, or on cable 24 hours a day. That's a really great thing for anyone needing a shot in the arm, or a reassurance that he or she is not alone. . .It can change culture, but it does so by reflecting trends and ideas that already exist at the vanguard of society and showing them to the masses. This all takes time - time for TV to catch on to an idea, time for networks to get the courage to permit depictions - and so TV has a built-in lag."

Colucci sees, in that lag, a gradual but inevitable progression: "With any minority, there are phases of acceptance: first there's minstrelsy, then there are minority characters who are the butt of the joke, then the token minority with saintly ethics, and then ultimately, the fully-rounded character who just happens to be of a particular group. African-Americans have been going up this same slope on TV and in film, and thankfully have made enormous progress to the point where now once-taboo interracial issues are disappearing, and characters both good and bad, both noble and lowly, and even mundane, just happen to be black. The LGBT community is on this same trajectory, albeit several decades behind."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.