Gay Rights and Hollywood Still Have a Long Way to Go

LGBT Marriage Equality Long Road
Karolis Strautniekas for Variety

Activist David Mixner stood alone on a theater stage in Los Angeles at the start of this year’s Gay Pride Month, sharing his memories with an audience of friends, political figures and a smattering of celebrities, about the time Ronald Reagan saw the light.

It was 1978, and aides to Reagan, who was on the cusp of launching his presidential campaign, believed he was ready to endorse a California initiative to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in the state’s classrooms, a ballot proposition inspired by the anti-gay crusades of singer Anita Bryant.

Mixner remembered when he and fellow activist Peter Scott landed a secret meeting with Reagan, who was exceedingly charming and willing to listen. Mixner warned the soon-to-be candidate that the initiative would create anarchy: Students could retaliate for a bad grade by accusing their teachers of being gay.

Reagan didn’t immediately reveal what he was going to do, but he later penned an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He not only didn’t support the proposition, but rather publicly opposed it. “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles,” he wrote. The initiative was defeated, delivering a nascent LGBT movement one of its first victories.

Karolis Strautniekas for Variety

There is a long and turbulent road that leads from those days of activism to the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. In the recent past, it was unthinkable that the battle for equality would even reach this moment, and it is a sign of progress for the LGBT movement, and a reminder of how the media, government, the entertainment industry and people on the street played a crucial role in shaping public opinion and approval.

The Supreme Court ruling covers only marriage. LGBT citizens remain the only group in America who do not have national protection in terms of housing and employment. And, as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved, legal standing doesn’t guarantee universal acceptance. Yet while many may view the marriage decision as no surprise, it still has far-reaching implications, including considerations of religion, law, health coverage and child care.

There has been a roller-coaster shift in attitudes since 1978, with moments of exuberance followed by crushing setbacks; Reagan’s initial helpfulness was followed by his administration’s years of indifference to AIDS, which killed tens of thousands of gay Americans.

Despite the aura of inevitability that surrounded the marriage decision, the fight isn’t over. The court majority established a clear constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but states may face resistance as they carry out the decision in areas where opposition is still strong.

“We are going to see a little bit of a backlash,” Mixner says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an increase in hate crimes directed against us.”

Mixner calls the past few years “epic” in the pace of progress for LGBT rights. Jim Obergefell, the namesake plaintiff in the same-sex marriage cases weighed by the Supreme Court, filed suit to demand that Ohio recognize his out-of-state marriage to John Arthur. Obergefell writes, in an essay for Variety, “What I didn’t expect on my way to that courtroom was to discover how much our story and our fight resonated with people across the country.” (Obergefell’s essay, Page 19)
The entertainment industry has helped change hearts and minds, but the extent of its contribution is a matter of debate.

In some ways, Hollywood has embraced the LGBT movement; in others, it’s shunned the cause.

With TV shows like “Will & Grace,” primetime may have paved the way; Vice President Joseph Biden cited the sitcom as a major factor in increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians. But the industry doesn’t look so groundbreaking when it comes to the paucity of A-list stars who have felt comfortable enough to come out. Recent years have seen the first out athletes in the NBA and NFL; at the multiplexes, audiences are still waiting for a gay action hero.

Civil rights activist Julian Bond is among those who see the media as having been a significant influence. “Americans began to get used to gay people,” he says of the shift in public opinion. “Instead of being, say, frightened of gay people, or unsure about them, or (thinking) ‘What are they up to? Or is there something wrong here?’ I think they have gotten used to gay people through television, the appearance of gay actors on TV, gay characters in movies, gay people appearing in ways we hadn’t seen before.”

The biggest challenge beyond housing and employment is perception. Activists worry about complacency in the LGBT community. As Bond points out, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s didn’t end racism. “People who are opposed to it now are going to keep at it. They are not going to give up the ship.”

Variety commissioned a survey by USC Annenberg’s celebrity-branding authority Jeetendr Sehdev that showed that 78% of the public supports equal employment and housing rights for gays and lesbians. However, most are unaware that LGBT adults don’t already have those rights throughout the country. For instance, many don’t realize that it is still legal in many states to fire someone for being gay.

A federal employment anti-discrimination law, proposed decades ago, has yet to make it to the president’s desk, and there are doubts it will move forward any time soon with the GOP majority in Congress. A comprehensive anti-discrimination bill “will be the biggest battle we’ve ever faced in the movement,” says Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “But it’s a battle we need to have. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s a battle that we’ll ultimately win.”

Karolis Strautniekas for Variety

When it comes to adoption by same-sex couples, the picture gets murkier. According to the Sehdev survey, 42% oppose adoption by same-sex couples, mirroring the opposition to same-sex marriage. Earlier this month, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed a law giving adoption agencies the power to refuse service to couples if it violates an agency’s religious beliefs. A fear among LGBT activists is that conservative state legislatures could pass similar laws.

“The Michigan law was targeting the LGBT community, it was targeting same-sex couples, and it was a deliberate backlash to what we’re seeing on marriage equality,” says Emily Hecht-McGowan, director of public policy at the Family Equality Council. “We have a long road ahead of us until legal equality translates into lived equality.”

Even in California, where the passage of the rights-denying Proposition 8 was a wake-up call to LGBT activists and allies, another initiative may make it to the 2016 ballot mandating that people use publicly owned restroom facilities of their biological sex. It’s a response to the movement for transgender rights.

Even on the issue of marriage equality, side issues are likely to trigger debate. Corporate America, including Hollywood studios, was far ahead of federal and state governments when it came to recognizing the need for benefits for same-sex couples. If marriage is an option, however, does it still make sense to recognize domestic partnerships? Some companies have been eliminating that category of benefits. “This is unfortunate for many couples, gay and straight, who either cannot or do not wish to marry,” says Camilla Taylor, marriage project director for Lambda Legal.

A measure of where things are lies in the pressure to tie the knot — a familiar feeling for many a heterosexual.

“I never thought getting married would become such a stereotypical ‘gay thing’ to do,” says 25-year-old actor Chris Colfer (Kurt Hummel on “Glee”). “In just a few years, what was discussed as only a prospect has now become an expectation in my circle of friends. I can’t tell you how many hysterical arguments I’ve gotten into by defending my right not to get married.”

What encourages people like former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), however, is the recent turnabout in Indiana, after Gov. Mike Pence signed a religious freedom law that was met with hostility from the business community. Despite what lies ahead, Frank believes that the LGBT movement is close to winning. “In America, link up the moral argument (for fair treatment) with the profit motive, and you have a pretty tough coalition,” he tells Variety. “The likelihood of (there being) substantial religious-based loopholes to these laws is very slight.”

However, not everyone is convinced. Rick Scarborough, founder of Vision America, believes that marriage “is part of the natural created order” and should only be between man and woman; God’s law, they say, takes precedence over any civil law. His group started an online declaration, in which clerics and lay people have vowed that if the law clashes with their religious beliefs, they will commit acts of civil disobedience.

Attention also is likely to focus internationally, in countries where being gay is still a crime or others that have outpaced even the U.S. in recognition. In May, Ireland became the first country to accept same-sex marriage by popular vote. More quietly that month, Mexico (another strongly Catholic country) ruled that the country’s constitution would be violated by defining marriage as a union only between a man and a woman.

How much has Hollywood influenced public opinion?

The novelty of a gay character in primetime may be giving way to the normalcy of shows with gay couples and gay families, but it didn’t happen overnight. All but invisible in the ’50s and ’60s, gay characters began to appear as networks pursued more relevant, sophisticated content in the ’70s. The first sitcom to feature a positive gay character was “All in the Family” in 1971. A year later, the TV movie “That Certain Summer” provided the first lengthy, sympathetic portrayal in primetime of a gay relationship.

On the bigscreen, 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy” cautiously presented two sexually confused characters, without being explicit about their orientation, while “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971) offered up a well-adjusted gay doctor (Peter Finch).

“‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was the first film to present gay relationships in a way that was real and honest,” recalls Rob Epstein, director of the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk.” “It was the first gay kiss that didn’t end with a punch in the face.”

For a decade, though, it more or less existed in a bubble. With a few exceptions, such as “Boys in the Band,” Hollywood largely steered clear of gay issues and characters. When the industry did turn its gaze in their direction, in films like William Friedkin’s 1980 “Cruising,” gay life was portrayed as nightmarish and aberrant.

On Broadway, gay content claimed a bit more of the spotlight, but even there it suffered from a victim complex. “Gay people were either comic relief, or they were alcoholics or miserable and committed suicide in the third act,” says playwright Terrence McNally, who rallied against the trend along with fellow writers including Harvey Fierstein.

David France, the director of the 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” argues that the AIDS crisis in the 1980s radically altered the public’s perception of homosexuality.

“There was a before AIDS and after AIDS in terms of civic standing,” he says. “When AIDS hit, there were no gay people out in public life; there were no gay celebrities, no gay media figures (that) anybody knew about. We went from darkness to light through the awful crucible of the AIDS epidemic. We learned gay people had relationships, and they left someone behind when they died.”

Onscreen, films like “Longtime Companion” (1989) and “Philadelphia” (1993) depicted the personal impact of the AIDS crisis. In time, the disease element vanished, giving way to films such as “The Birdcage” (1996) and “The Kids Are All Right” (2010) and TV shows “Queer as Folk” (2000-05) and “Glee” (2009-15), which featured gay people who were healthy and relatively happy in their own skin. In recent years, digital companies such as Netflix and Amazon have seen the commercial possibilities of telling stories about gay or transgender characters in “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent,” earning awards and subscribers in the process.

Performers like Neil Patrick Harris have proven that sexual orientation shouldn’t determine whether an actor plays a gay or straight role.

“I’ve been fortunate in getting to play against type (in the recent film “Gone Girl” and CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother”) while people know what my actual type is,” he says. “That’s been empowering to others, and certainly to me, that I can tweet pictures of my husband and my kids.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the types of gay characters being presented onscreen. Frank praises real-life figures such as Ellen DeGeneres, but is critical of what he considers to be stereotypical portrayals of gay men on shows like “Will & Grace.”

He’s not the only one who sees mixed messages from the media. According to USC Annenberg’s Sehdev, six in 10 Americans believe that LGBT characters are not portrayed in a positive light.

His survey results also show that the most influential factors in shaping attitudes about gays have been knowing someone who is LGBT (84%) or knowing LGBT parents (69%); straight leaders championing LGBT equality (80%); and famous public figures who are gay, lesbian or bisexual (78%). Just 38% identified LGBT characters on TV and in movies as influential.

That’s not insignificant. Entertainment, while not as important as a personal connection, is still a factor in public awareness.

When it comes to major movie releases, there has been a lag, especially as studios depend ever more on international audiences. In some substantial territories poised for growth, LGBT acceptance may be seen less as an issue of fairness, and more as one of permissiveness.

“It’s just a bigger ship to turn around,” says Jeffrey Friedman, director of “Howl” and “Lovelace” alongside Rob Epstein. “Film is bigger and bulkier and it’s less supple as a medium. TV is always looking for novelty, and gay relationships and gay experiences are a great treasure trove.”

There are pockets of the industry, such as the country and hip-hop music scenes, where progress has been mixed, despite the presence of “out” stars like Frank Ocean and Chely Wright. Country singer Ty Herndon, who recently went public about being gay, admits that he faced criticism from some fans. “We’re at the gateway of change, but there’s a long ways to go,” says Herndon, who believes that the chance to be a positive influence is more important than any career blowback from his decision to come out.

“In the South, kids are killing themselves,” he says. “It was important to let them know they’re not broken.”

This belief in the role that media can play in changing lives has prompted parts of the entertainment business to assume an activist role. The effort to overturn Prop. 8 in the federal court started with an idea hatched by Rob Reiner, his wife, Michele, and political consultants Griffin and Kristina Schake at a 2008 brunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. David Geffen and Steve Bing provided $3 million in seed money, and producer Bruce Cohen was president of a nonprofit set up to pursue the litigation.

As the Prop. 8 case made its way to the Supreme Court, they maximized their connections to the industry, raising money from star-filled benefit performances of “8,” a play written by Dustin Lance Black about the 2010 trial over same-sex marriage.

Just this month, Lambda Legal has rolled out a series of videos from celebrity activists, including one from Julianne Moore that has generated about 670,000 views, as a way of messaging to a bigger audience. “She reaches a broad range of folks, not just the LGBT community,” says Lambda’s Leslie Gabel-Brett of Moore.

Still to be determined is whether that energy will endure — in 2016 and beyond.

The presidential election contest next year may be the first in which opposition to same-sex marriage is more of a handicap than an asset in the fall campaign. Democrats seem determined to use marriage equality as a generational wedge against Republicans, a turnabout from 12 years ago. A younger generation of conservatives no longer see gay rights as antithetical to their beliefs, with nearly half of those under 50 declaring themselves as being in favor of gay marriage, according to a study by Project Right Side.

“My great hope is that Republicans will see the writing on the wall, and not dig in their heels and gin up a wedge issue to win a primary and make themselves irrelevant in the general,” says Margaret Hoover, a pro-gay marriage political commentator and former aide to President George W. Bush.

There remain questions about whether the LGBT movement can stay unified as opposition softens and new legislative goals are pursued. When gay hoteliers hosted a reception for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also a Republican presidential candidate, they got pushback and calls for a boycott of their hotel. One of the hotel owners later admitted to having given Cruz a campaign donation.

Frontiers Media columnist Karen Ocamb, a veteran reporter of the LGBT movement, wrote in a recent essay that “sometimes it seems bashing and bullying people for venturing an inch or two beyond the accepted cool-guys groupthink of the day is an acceptable blood sport, with the most clever and vicious turn of phrase collecting the most likes and retweets. Of course, the critics see themselves as merely holding the offender accountable.”

She got a lot of flak for her piece, but her point was, how can the LGBT community achieve full equality without talking to and persuading anti-LGBT legislators to vote for the freedom side of history?

Frank thinks the road forward demands political shrewdness — perhaps of the type that, 37 years ago, may have helped convince Ronald Reagan to go public against an anti-gay initiative.

“You know who the most successful activists in America are?” Frank asks. “The people in the National Rifle Assn.” They win because they vote, they track legislation and they badger elected officials, Frank argues. There’s a lesson there. “We can use our rights as citizens,” he says. “That is the key. Marches and demonstrations are not going to do this. It is (about) getting deeply engaged in the political process.”