The Boston Phoenix December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001


The queer year

Homosexuality still makes for good gossip, but this year, more than any other, showed that the general public's getting more blasé about it every day

by Dorie Clark

The most prominent gay image of Y2K? Cunning, obese nudist Richard Hatch, the corporate trainer whose peers elected him the champ of CBS's insanely popular summertime hit, Survivor. It's impressive enough that his fellow island-dwellers were so unfazed by his sexuality that, judging him solely on his Machiavellian merit, they awarded him the million-dollar prize. But even tabloid headlines announcing his victory focused on other parts of his Richard Hatch identity: FAT NAKED AMBITION SURVIVES, blared the Boston Herald. And occasionally oversensitive gay activists (who noisily protested Basic Instinct back in 1992 for showcasing a bisexual murderer) were relaxed about the message Richard sent. "He squelched so many stereotypes about gay men," says Scott Seomin, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Richard "isn't afraid to be who he is," says Seomin, and he deftly handled the homophobia of island-mate Rudy, a septuagenarian former Navy SEAL who -- thanks to his alliance with Richard -- made it to the game's final rounds.

Survivor in many ways encapsulates America's complicated relationship with gay rights at the millennium. Our response to Richard was more amusement than outcry. There were no protests when a gay man won the game. In a country where polls show that roughly three-quarters of the public supports anti-discrimination laws protecting gays in the workplace, it isn't surprising that it's okay to see a gay man win a TV contest. It even makes sense (though it's still startling) that strait-laced Rudy was amenable to an alliance with Richard and developed respect for his tactical abilities. But like Rudy, many Americans are still deeply uncomfortable with homosexuality and the rights (especially marriage) that gay men and lesbians demand. This year showed that real political resistance to the gay movement remains, though it seems to be coming from a shrinking -- if vocal --minority. But the rest of America, while still perhaps a long way from accepting gay marriage, is getting more blasé about things like gay friends, gay celebrity break-ups, and the prominence of homosexuality in entertainment.

the year in review

art - classical - cultural explosions - dance - film
film culture - fiction - jazz - internet - law - local rock
local punk and metal - nonfiction - queer - pop
protest - theater - tv

Gays on television are nothing new: Ellen DeGeneres burst out of the closet in 1997 (and got canceled a year later). What is new is their mainstream success. Will & Grace, a comedic look at the relationship between a stylish gay man and his straight female best friend, won this year's Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series and was nominated for 10 others. Executives are now using homosexual characters to spice up otherwise bland sit-coms (witness John Goodman as a gay man in the recently canceled Normal, Ohio), and Showtime just introduced the saucy and explicit Queer as Folk. Even ER, which quickly disposed of the lesbian character Dr. Maggie Doyle several years ago, is now turning a principal -- mean, bitchy Dr. Carrie Weaver -- into a dyke this season. Again, the response from activists has been positive. Seomin of GLAAD calls it "great for lesbian visibility," and notes approvingly that she's "an extremely complicated and flawed character."

Ellen DeGeneres There were moments this year when homophobes might have triumphed. In August, DeGeneres called it quits with her partner of three years, actress Anne Heche, thereby "proving" the instability of gay relationships. Heche even seemed to have some sort of psychotic breakdown over it, wandering bizarrely up to someone's house in Fresno and asking for water and a shower. Shortly thereafter, newspapers reported that Heche had begun dating a man (the cameraman for the documentary she had been directing about DeGeneres, in fact).

Certainly the break-up was tabloid fodder and water-cooler conversation. But the talk died down after a few days; the split ultimately attracted far less attention than Meg Ryan's leaving Dennis Quaid for Russell Crowe. Just another Hollywood break-up. When the ax fell a second time, and lesbian power couple Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher split, the gay community was in shock. The stakes were even higher in their case -- they had two children and had been together for 12 years. But again, the news faded quickly. Rather than being perceived as a referendum on gay relationships, this fall's break-ups were seen Melissa Etheridge as personal decisions. And lesbian celebs weren't the only ones being true to themselves. John Paulk -- the putative ex-gay featured in a 1998 national advertising campaign, sponsored by a consortium of conservative groups, as someone who successfully "went straight" -- was caught hanging out in a gay bar in Washington, DC, this summer.

Of course, there were pockets of anti-gay sentiment, but they came from the usual suspects -- and every flare-up seemed to bring an equal and opposite response. The pope went apoplectic over World Pride in Rome, saying it insulted the sanctity of the Jubilee year. But Reform Jews voted in March to allow full blessing of same-sex unions. Meanwhile, former president Jimmy Carter, the paragon of Southern Baptist virtue, publicly left the church, saying it had gotten too conservative on such matters as the treatment of women and gays. He wrote, "I have been disappointed and feel excluded by the adoption of policies and an increasingly rigid Southern Baptist Convention creed, including some provisions that violate the basic premises of my Christian faith."

Dr. Laura -- who famously called gay people "biological errors" -- got her own television show this year, but advertisers left in droves and the ratings tanked, putting it at risk for cancellation. It's true that ballot initiatives barring recognition of gay marriage sailed through in Nevada and Nebraska, and a ballot initiative that would have protected gays from discrimination in Maine was narrowly defeated (see "Why Maine's Latest Gay-Rights Measure Failed," News and Features, December 22). But the Take Back Vermont movement, which opposed that state's July 1 introduction of civil unions (marriage-like status for gay and lesbian couples), failed to oust incumbent governor Howard Dean from office.

The Boy Scouts reveled in their June Supreme Court victory, which upheld their ban on gay troop leaders and members. But many local boards of the United Way responded by cutting off funding to the Scouts, and public-school superintendents across the nation have banned the group from recruiting new members and meeting on school grounds.

Tufts protest Locally, the student judiciary board at Tufts University upheld a decision by the Tufts Christian Fellowship to prohibit a lesbian member with three years' seniority from taking a leadership position (a clear violation of the university's anti-discrimination policy). Students on campus responded by taking over a university building and demanding that Tufts president John DiBiaggio make a public statement strongly supporting the nondiscrimination policy -- which he did. In March, a local anti-gay activist secretly tape-recorded a teen workshop on safe sex sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. Although two members of the state Department of Education lost their jobs in the ensuing controversy, the flap encouraged State Senator Cheryl Jacques of Needham to come out as a lesbian.

Indeed, the political realm offered the biggest surprises of the year. Yeah, Joe Lieberman spoke at the Human Rights Campaign's annual Washington fundraising dinner (Al Gore spoke the year before). Yeah, Tipper played drums at HRC's Equality Rocks concert in April. Yeah, gays lined up behind the Senate bid of Hillary Rodham Clinton (the other HRC). But the real news was on the other side of the aisle. In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole seemed angst-ridden about the gay issue. His aides rejected, and then accepted, a check from the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group. This year, George W. continued the intrigue, contradicting himself repeatedly on whether he would hire openly gay people to work for him. But in the end, he met with 12 gay Republican activists in Austin, the first time a Republican presidential nominee had ever met with such a group. Bush was also more than happy to rake in gay Republican donations (the Log Cabin Republicans alone spent nearly a half-million dollars on issue ads promoting Bush's candidacy).

Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, seemed even more open on the gay question. The former Wyoming representative had an abysmal voting record on gay issues during his time in Congress, but circa 2000 his positions seemed more progressive than those of Lieberman, his Democratic counterpart. "I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into," he said in the vice-presidential debate. His about-face was due (it seems safe to say) to his openly lesbian daughter, Mary. It's been widely reported that Cheney enjoys hunting and fishing vacations with his daughter, which is perhaps the perfect metaphor for gay rights at the turn of the millennium. Hunting and fishing -- integral parts of the "tough dyke" stereotype -- now also epitomize wholesome Republican father-daughter bonding.

This year's profusion of gayness meant that no one image defined the entire gay community. The public saw everything from a dutiful, yet out, Republican daughter to a conniving, fat gay nudist who outmaneuvered his desert-island companions for a million bucks. They saw lesbian romance grind to a halt, and they saw legions of gay tourists rush to Vermont. Though there were patches of controversy and discomfort, this was the year that we gay people got to be ourselves, in all our quirky, sweet, and sometimes bitchy glory. And America -- surprisingly -- was okay with it.

Dorie Clark can be reached at dclark[a]