As Supreme Court considers ending gay marriage ban, I name TV's top portrayals of gay people which helped get us here
It’s a stock line I often deliver during speeches: In America, media helps define how the majority culture views a minority within its borders.
Want to see the country’s evolving struggle over its view of the poor, or Southern people or young people of color? Watch an episode of COPS or Duck Dynasty or Southland or MTV’s The Real World.
And nowhere has that idea been more evident than in the journey America’s gay people have taken in modern media.
As the Supreme Court today considers the constitutionality of gay marriage, I remain convinced that few corners of the country were more powerful than the nation’s media outlets in cleaning up stereotypes about gay people and pressing the case that they deserve equal civil rights in all areas.
It’s hard to remember just 15 years ago, when comic Ellen DeGeneres landed on the cover of TIME magazine just by declaring “Yup, I’m gay.” Her ABC sitcom’s episode on her character’s coming out as a lesbian was titled “The Puppy Episode” to fake out media reporters trying to guess if she would publicly reveal what many in show business already knew.
I have seen recent media reports which suggested this had the effect of a dam breaking, bringing rushing flood waters of equality as the world realized its mistake. But what I remember from that time, was that the world remained divided about DeGeneres’ decision – a number of religious leaders signed an advertisement condemning the episode published in major newspapers – and her sitcom Ellen died not long after the coming out episode aired.
I also remember telling out and proud rock/pop singer Melissa Etheridge back then that those who opposed gay rights then would be regarded with the same disdain notoriously sergegationist and racist Alabama Gov. George Wallace is regarded now. Repeating those words at a journalism seminar years ago drew disagreement – even from some gay journalists in the room.
But here we are, in that reality. And media images helped get us here. So I’m listing my favorite media protrayals which I think helped the image of gay people in America.
Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas on ABC’s satire Soap (1977). He wasn’t the greatest gay role model, especially before they jettisoned a storyline where he wanted a sex change. But Crystal’s Jodie was one of TV’s earliest sympathetic gay characters, played by an up-and-coming comedy star who gave him an earnest, funny appeal.
Ellen DeGeneres’ Puppy Episode (1997). As the beginning of DeGeneres’ wrenching attempt to reconcile her showbiz life with her real life, this brilliantly funny episode featured Laura Dern as her love interest, Oprah Winfrey as her therapist and a boatload of jokes to ease the discomfort. It killed the sitcom, which couldn’t figure out how to make her newly-lebisn life funny, but it liberated DeGenres, who no longer had to shoehorn herself into uncomfortable roles as a tomboyishly asexual character.
Will Truman, Jack McFarland, Will & Grace (1998). This was an important step but a tentative one. Will and Jack were never romantically involved; the primary emotional relationship onthis show was reserved for Eric McCormack’s gay man Will and Debra Messing’s heterosexual female Grace. The show outsourced the more stereotypical features of gay male characters to Sean Hayes’ McFarland (promiscuity, flambouyant attitude, self-centered behavior), while McCormack was the centered, sensible gay man. This twosome – always white, always middle class always male – would continue through sitcoms such as Modern Family and The New Normal.
David Fisher and Keith Charles, Six Feet Under (2001). As the horribly repressed gay brother in a funeral home owning family, Michael C. Hall was note perfect as good son David Fisher. His messy side sometimes showed in his relationship with police officer Keith Charles (Mathew St. Patrck), with whom he eventually adopted sons.
Cameron Tucker and Mitchell Pritchett, Modern Family (2009). As the modern version of the gay twosome first brought to television in Will & Grace, Cam and Mitchell not only get to have a relationship, they are married with a child and thinking of adding another. Now, all we need are more gay characters who can be non-white, working class and perhaps even outside big cities.