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Invisible exposure
Two media powerhouses have announced plans for gay-and-lesbian cable channels. But could gay TV mean the death of queer culture?

GAY TV. CLEARLY, this is an idea whose time has come. After all, in the parlance of the porn industry, itís a money shot. And so, on January 10, MTV and Showtime, cable outlets both owned by Viacom, announced that they are developing the first cable channel geared to a lesbian-and-gay audience. The proposed, and as yet unnamed, channel would operate as a pay channel along the lines of HBO or Showtime, but would cost subscribers much less ó possibly as little as $5 a month. A start-up date has not yet been announced.

The concept seems like such an obvious step that the new channel faces competition even before going on the air. Just a week after Viacomís announcement, MDC Entertainment Groupís Alt1-TV revealed its own plans for a gay-and-lesbian channel that would premiere by the first quarter of 2003. Alt1-TVís channel, unlike Viacomís, would be funded by advertising. And the Canadian channel PrideVision, which premiered four months ago to very positive reviews, is seriously considering expansion into US markets.

The Viacom and MDC announcements have given rise to lots of humor columns (mostly with obvious jokes, though the Washington Postís Hank Stuever scored a laugh with his suggestion for a show titled The Weakest Twink). But all the yucking it up aside, media critics agree with the proposed channelsí producers that success or failure will lie in the quality of their shows. "Programs and content make a network," noted MDCís David McKillop, "not the other way around."

It is nice to know that television execs are interested in the quality of gay-themed programming. Still, the idea of a specialty gay-and-lesbian television channel raises serious political issues ó issues that strike at the heart of how the gay movement generates and sets its agenda. That said, itís also true that the old debates may not be very useful to assessing the significance of Gay TV.

A popular belief holds that increased public visibility is crucial to a minorityís liberation ó even equivalent to it. In this tradition, Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), greeted the unveiling of the new homo-channels with the rousing battle cry, "The flag Iím carrying is for visibility, and the more the better." And indeed, visibility has been a hallmark of American social-justice movements over the past half-century. African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, women, homosexuals, and other marginalized groups have long demanded that they be represented more frequently and more accurately in the media, which had grown accustomed to blatantly, and often grotesquely, stereotyping "minorities" ó or ignoring them altogether in what was essentially a white- and male-dominated landscape.

Thereís no question that visibility in the entertainment and news media introduces minorities into the fabric of everyday life. Shows like The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show broke through TV stereotypes of African-Americans, and, by extension, they influenced to some degree how African-Americans were perceived by the broader white-majority culture. So it is probably better to have black sit-coms on television than not. It is probably better to have Will and Grace and Ellen on TV than not, just as itís better to have non-biased coverage of the Matthew Shepard murder than homophobic coverage, and itís better to have more racially sensitive coverage of African-Americans than reporting informed by white prejudice. Though it is a vast wasteland, television is also a great equalizer, and the increased exposure it offers helps render minorities more ordinary. The late wit and arch-queen Quentin Crisp referred to this truism, only half jokingly, as "liberation through banalization."

But this version of liberation, which places a high premium on visibility, isnít universally embraced. For as long and hard as some have fought to increase visibility, there have been others who claim that such visibility comes at too high a price ó that the "banalization" inherent in the mainstreaming of minority images presents nothing but false, easily accessible and acceptable stereotypes that ultimately do more harm than good. Did The Cosby Show help eliminate white racism, or did it just present a portrait of upper-middle-class blacks who had almost nothing to do with the reality in which most African-Americans (or most Americans, for that matter) live?

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Issue Date: January 31 - February 7, 2002
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