When the phrase “We’re queer, we’re here, get used to it” began floating in general circulation, it appeared that the new gay ’90s had segued into the new millennium, if not with the crossbeam-and-plaster-shattering crash of “Angels in America,” then at least to the degree that the homosexual community and its subset of bisexuals and transgenders could enter the mainstream without being bashed on sight.
They had survived AIDS. They had survived murderous bigotry and the long silence of bearing the love that dare not speak its name. But aside from political gains and the reaffirmation of legal and civil rights, how did they know they’d arrived?
They got on TV.
Small signs of coming out began, of all places, in the Reagan era, with the character of Steve on “Dynasty.” Billy Crystal played a well-rounded gay on “Soap.” The ’90s began the range that stretched from Richard Simmons flouncing on David Letterman’s couch and two queen film critics Zorro-snapping on “In Living Color” to Bill Brochtrup’s desk jockey John Irvin, whose affecting presence won him a place in the macho precinct of “NYPD Blue.”
Now, after “Will & Grace,” “Ellen,” “The L Word,” “Six Feet Under,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and other gay depictions on broadcast and cable, plus the impending launch of all-gay network Logo, it would appear that the historic battle for acceptance and recognition has been won.
But before the gay — or gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community, as it likes to be officially called — can dust off its hands and declare primetime victory, it’s important to note that gay representation on TV over the past five years has either leveled or fallen off.
While drama series have remained consistent, with the same number of shows in 2000 (11) as in 2005, the number of sitcoms that feature gays has dropped to five from 16 in 2000. In 2000, eight of those 16 comedies were on network television, while now only two of the five are broadcast on the networks.
Michael Medved, film critic and nationally syndicated talk show host, doesn’t view this as much a setback as a more realistic representation. “People think gay people are under-represented in Hollywood? I mean come on, it’s kind of ridiculous, almost laughable,” says Medved, whose radio show is broadcast by Christian-oriented Salem Communications. “If you ask people who watch a lot of TV, their sense of the number of out gay people is much higher (than it actually is). This is particularly true when you compare L.A. and a city like Grand Rapids.”
Medved’s views aside, there are other speed bumps ahead for the GLBT cause. Some are relatively minor, while others are of a potential magnitude that might lead future historians to ask, “Is Sean Hayes a revolutionary figure?”
The issue has to do with stereotyping. Is the tart, fey, innuendo-dripping swish, however entertaining, the right standard-bearer for the GLBT experience?
“We’re all victims of stereotypes,” says Jeffrey Garber. “It isn’t just a question of how straight society sees gays, but how gays see themselves. If America sees the new gay as young, hip and physically attractive, that’s hard to live up to.”
Garber is president of OpusComm Group, a research and marketing consultant organization that polls the GLBT community. Its latest online survey, conducted with the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse U., tracked TV-viewing habits. It returned one general conclusion: ambivalence.
According to the poll, over 95% of viewers found the most accurate portrayal of gays in “Six Feet Under.” Nearly 50% chose Ellen DeGeneres as their favorite performer, and nearly 70% of lesbians watch “The L Word.” Thereafter, the numbers scatter. Hayes’ flamboyant Jack McFarland on “Will & Grace” was voted the most favorite and most negative character. The most popular show among males, “Queer as Folk,” drew 26%, scarcely more than one in four.
“Every minority,” says Garber, “is happy at first just to see itself portrayed in mainstream media. It’s only after time that they get impatient with one-dimensional portrayals and start looking for more realistic depictions. While Jack (McFarland) is effeminate, doesn’t have a job and lives off others, you also have the character of Will, who’s more rounded if generally less popular. He’s evolved over the years.
Most gay spokesmen and observers consider DeGeneres’ coming out on “Ellen” as a milestone. “She had a successful series,” says Garber. “She didn’t use dirty language. She was like ‘I Love Lucy.’ She told lesbian jokes at the 2001 Emmys. Corporate and Middle America saw then that (her sexual orientation) was acceptable.”
“I think gay media representation on the whole is more helpful than hurtful,” says Jim Babl, a clinical psychologist with a private practice who works with gay students at UCLA in handling their coming out. “While the main character in ‘Will & Grace’ is promiscuous, there’s a couple in the background living a normal life. And you do see diversity in ‘Queer Eye,’ even if it’s the prissy guy (Kressley) getting the ink.”
However, while Babl sees stereotyping as a part of gay culture much like stereotyping in any other — whether it’s boyz in the ‘hood, the cholo lowrider, or, for that matter, the monochrome suit of the boardroom exec — he sees a danger.
“There’s a lot out there who say, ‘We’re camp, let’s show everybody,’ and other gays and lesbians who want to tone down the in-your-face aggressiveness,” Babl says. “While the general mood of the country — even if it’s not ready for gay marriage — is to support equal rights across the board, the culture in America is based on fear right now.”
Indeed, Babl touches on a topic that many in the GLBT community are seriously debating: that the last presidential election was decided in part by the mobilization of religious conservatives against gay marriage.
“Stereotyping has set the movement back,” says Howard Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic who now teaches at USC. “I thought ‘Six Feet Under’ was a healthy depiction, and without Ellen — who I always reacted well to — there never would’ve been a ‘Will & Grace.’ I thought they kept the show going by making it convenient to laugh at gays.
“I find ‘The L Word’ irritating. It’s a poor woman’s version of ‘Sex and the City.’ It says every other woman in the world is gay and lipstick gorgeous. It’s so slick it’s like having sex through Plexiglas.
“The problem is,” Rosenberg adds, “is that the whole country is running scared. The discussion isn’t as wide-ranging as it should be. You’d think Larry King would have someone else other than Jerry Falwell on his Rolodex when it comes to gay issues. Falwell is one of those people who insist it’s all choice, like the difference between living in Beverly Hills and Pacoima. Stereotypes hurt, no matter who you are.”