Each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation gives out its Media Awards to honor entertainment that in some way advances the cause of LGBT acceptance.
Over the years, mainstream films and TV shows have made great strides in this regard — “Brokeback Mountain,” anyone? Yet both the tube and the bigscreen still contribute stereotyped gay characters to the mix, and when gay characters are presented in a flattering (or at least neutral) light, they are frequently relegated to supporting roles.
This year’s nominees for outstanding film in wide release, for example, include “Everybody’s Fine,” “I Love You, Man,” “Precious,” “A Single Man” and “Woodstock.” But only “A Single Man” features an LGBT protagonist.
“This is not a gay film,” says Tom Ford, who wrote, produced and directed “A Single Man,” based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical novel.
“Yes, the hero is gay, but we don’t describe films with heterosexual heroes as straight films. It’s important to break down this barrier. And the thing I wanted to get across is that George (Colin Firth) is not the Gay Character.”
Ford mentions how gay characters evolved in films, from the era of inference, epitomized by a movie like “Tea and Sympathy” (1956), to the open acknowledgement of gay sex in pics like “Wilde” (1997).
“There have always been characters we assumed were gay,” he says. “But one wouldn’t come out and say it. Today we live in a world where things are much more open, and actors are more wiling to play gay. We accept that men have sex with each other, and this is what it looks like.”
Though we see little gay sex on broadcast TV, that doesn’t mean gay characters are absent. Yet the shows regularly featuring gay parts are ensemble efforts like ABC’s “Ugly Betty” and “Brothers and Sisters” and Fox’s “Glee” — the latter two nommed for GLAAD awards this year. One show that comes closer to offering star roles for gay characters is ABC’s tripartite comedy “Modern Family,” also up for a GLAAD award.
“It started with a desire on our parts to write about American families,” says Christopher Lloyd, the show’s co-creator and exec producer.
“Because there is no single family that represents the American family now, we thought three families might give us a better picture of how things are. So we created a fairly traditional family, a stepfamily with an older guy and an ethnic wife and then a third family, a gay couple with a new baby. ”
Lloyd contends that gay characters of all stripes will likely continue to be increasingly visibile on the tube.
“America has had to reckon with the fact that most people either know or are related to gay people,” he says. “That means you can write gay characters in slightly truer fashion, and though being gay is a part of who they are, it isn’t the main thing you’re focusing on each week.”
That’s a perspective embraced by Ann Biderman, the creator and exec producer of “Southland,” which has moved from NBC to TNT. Though her police drama is not up for a GLAAD award, one of its ensemble roles is a gay cop named John Cooper, played by Michael Cudlitz. Cooper’s sexuality was introduced subtly and has rarely been highlighted since.
“You don’t introduce a character and say they’re heterosexual,” Biderman insists. “It’s just not the first thing you do. But it’s always the first thing with gay characters, and I find that really tiresome. When I was creating the character of John, he kind of dictated that he was gay. I didn’t set out to create a gay character; it just felt right.”
Perhaps the most surprising news connected with this year’s GLAAD awards is how well the LGBT community fared in reality programming, with all five of this year’s nominees claiming strong representation.
CBS’s “Amazing Race” has long led the pack in this regard, and there’s no doubt of the cred possessed by “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on Logo.
But who expected MTV’s “The Real World: Brooklyn” to include its first transgender housemate, plus one gay-male and one bi-female roommate?
MTV also put forth “Making His Band,” in which a black transgender female singer was selected to back Sean Combs in performance.
All of which makes one wonder if studios and networks should take a lesson and let art imitate life.