When I was a kid, my grandmother in Indiana for some reason knew that Rock Hudson was gay. She used to say disparaging words — “he’s a queer.” But she had great affection for Paul Lynde on “Hollywood Squares.” Those were the only gay men I knew. I felt those were my only options: flamboyant gay guy or 6-foot-tall movie star that I’m never going to look like. I thought, I’m screwed.
When I got any success, the first thing I made was “Popular,” in the late ’90s. Even then, it was hard to have a gay sensibility. I used to get notes about what the cheerleaders were wearing, because some executives thought the clothes looked too “feminine” or too “effeminate” or too “gay.” Which was shocking. I would push back, and win.
I would introduce gay characters slowly and surely. I don’t think the battle changed. I think that group of network executives got out of the business or retired. And a young, more liberal group of people took over the town.
By the time I got to “Glee” and I did the Kurt Hummel-and-his-dad story, the network executives and the studio executives who were largely straight — that was the storyline they loved the most. They kept saying, “We want more of this. This is fresh, this is emotional.” It was based on my dad and myself. That was also the year “Modern Family” came out. So those topics had moved from niche to mainstream. It was not a fight at all. It was embraced.
When I first saw the play “A Normal Heart” years ago, I was struck by the fact that it ends with a gay wedding. In 1983, that was pretty brave and new. That’s why I wanted to make that movie; it was really about the struggle so many have had for equality. That scene when they got married by Julia Roberts was one of the most wrenching I have ever done, and the crew had ever done. People were sobbing for a day. In that moment, we as a generation got to see the tide turn. But so many people died and went to their graves feeling unloved, unequal without the civil rights provided to everybody.
People in their 20s tell me, “I had no idea that level of discrimination existed.” That’s the thing that touches me. There’s been such a great progression, perhaps greater than any time in history. That’s been incredibly rewarding. I love the idea of entertainment that changes people.
Every civil rights movement has to face that moment of, “Are you going to die for it?” A lot of people have been willing to die for this. And have. And we stand on their shoulders, starting with Stonewall all the way through AIDS. I don’t think there would be gay marriage without AIDS, because so many people got to witness the pain and the horror — and also the fact that there was so much love. They saw our blood bleeds red just like theirs. When we were in the middle of that, no one thought that this was possible. But now looking back, we do see that that’s true.