2007 shows steady progress for gay cause

19th annual GLAAD Media Awards

GLAAD’s annual media awards, now in their 19th year, have long provided a review of how the LGBT community is portrayed in everything from film, TV and theater to newspapers, magazines and comic books.

On occasion, the specifics resonate far beyond the same-sex world and into the mainstream, as when Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” dominated conversations two years ago or Ellen DeGeneres came out on her eponymous TV show a decade earlier.

But not every year can be a banner one, and the work of 2007 being celebrated at this year’s ceremonies seems to honor steady progress more than milestone moments. There are, for example, no films in the “Brokeback” mode. Instead, Par’s PG-13-rated “Stardust” (Robert De Niro plays a gay pirate) took the award for wide release at the March 17 ceremonies in New York, where Eytan Fox’s Hebrew-language “The Bubble” (think gay love a la Romeo and Juliet set in Israel and the West Bank) took top limited release honors.

Theater, too, was especially low-key, with “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” getting the nod in the Broadway and Off Broadway category, filled this year with shows foreign to most legit lovers. “BASH’d: A Gay Rap Opera” took the prize for an Off Off Broadway production; it transfers to Off Broadway in June.

The current year (to be honored by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in spring 2009) looks more promising than 2007 for both film and theater, with Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” starring Sean Penn as martyred San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, skedded to open this November, and John Bucchino and Harvey Fierstein’s musical “A Catered Affair” having just bowed on Broadway, with Fierstein in his first major role, playing a gay uncle, since “Hairspray” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

But an inauspicious year for one or two fields can redirect attention toward another, and in 2007, it was television that comes into sharpest focus. Not that there was anything in the past year to rival “Ellen’s” epochal moment or “Will & Grace” during its heyday. Instead, the nominees in seven categories (nine if you count TV news) reflect increasing progress toward GLAAD’s mission of encouraging more positive LGBT representation in media. Winners will be announced in Los Angeles on Saturday.

If there was big news in TV this past year, it was that GLAAD had finally relented and embraced the work of gay nets like Here and Logo, which the org had previously resisted honoring, arguing that fare from mainstream sources could better use the encouragement. Thus this time, shows like Logo’s lesbian laffer “Exes and Ohs,” its biopic “Daphne” and Here’s black-centric “The DL Chronicles” reaped noms against material from ABC (“Brothers and Sisters,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Dirty Sexy Money”), Showtime (“The L Word”) and Fox (“The War at Home”).

“I’m really happy we’ve gotten to this place,” says Meredith Kadlec, veep of original programming for Here, which led the charge for inclusion. “I also hope mainstream executives will come away from this, seeing how much good content is being created for this audience.”

Yet even with the rule change, ABC scored the most drama and comedy series noms, with five of 10. In addition, the net’s “Boston Legal” claimed the prize on March 17 in the category of “individual episode (in a series without a regular LGBT character).”

“This is a reflection of how much we value our audience,” suggests Disney-ABC Television Group prexy Anne Sweeney. “We’re hardwired to mirror the voices of our full audience. That’s why these nominations are so important to us. We don’t have a formal mandate. We have a team of people who embrace diversity and want to reflect the audiences that watch our programs.”

That said, none of ABC’s current shows actually feature a gay character in a lead role, as “Ellen” and “Will & Grace” did. But Sweeney contends this hardly matters when the shows in question are ensemble efforts that give gay characters equal time. “These are starring roles,” she maintains. “My take on the nominations is that it’s about how well these characters are written.”

Other nominees take a more casual approach to the honors. Dan Sterling, head writer and an exec producer on Comedy Central’s “The Sarah Silverman Program,” says his show’s gay characters — a pair of slackers named Brian and Steve (played by Brian Posehn and Steve Agee) — were never intended to be standard-bearers.

“It wasn’t even clear whether they were gay originally,” he recalls. “I think we introduced them by saying, ‘This is Brian and Steve. They’re bothers, or lovers — I’m not sure which.’ Then we realized it was so much richer that they were gay. But we had no interest in doing stories about their sex life or traditional gay themes. The intention is to be funny. I don’t know what GLAAD actually likes about us, but it will be nice to meet people at the ceremony and get feedback.”

He can compare notes with Rob Lotterstein, creator of the now-defunct Fox comedy “The War at Home,” a sort of updated “Married With Children,” which last year featured a six-episode arc that charted the coming out of Kenny, best friend of the series’ 15-year-old middle child.

Yet Lotterstein’s experiences with GLAAD haven’t always been pleasant. He recalls the org pressuring him over the use of an epithet not long before “The War at Home” first aired. “I’ve come a long way now with GLAAD,” he says, noting the irony of his show being nommed.

Lotterstein worked on “Ellen” and “Will & Grace” starting on his show and thus has an enviable vantage point from which to chart LGBT progress on TV.

“A lot of it has to do with gay people being so visible in society,” Lotterstein says. “We have gay parents, gay children and gay neighbors. I think the stigma for much of the country is, ‘Oh, so what? Big deal.’ There’s just more visibility. We’re out there.”

Which is, of course, what GLAAD has been saying all along.

: 19th Annual GLAAD Media Awards

L.A. ceremony
: Kodak Theater, Hollywood
When: Saturday

S.F. ceremony
: San Francisco Marriott
When: May 10
Web: glaad.org

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