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Where’s our gay Sidney Poitier?
In the battle for same-sex marital equality, a gay lead FBI agent on a popular TV show is worth a hundred Queer Eye spinoffs

IN A REMARKABLY brief period of time, we Bay Staters have become old hat in the debate over gay marriage. Elsewhere, that seems to have been the pattern too: for all the Sturm und Drang that accompanied legalization of same-sex marriage in Belgium, Holland, and four Canadian provinces, and gay civil unions in Vermont, a winning consensus was reached with surprising speed, once the public conversation got under way. The state constitutional amendment to forbid same-sex marriage, passed in March, was already likely to go down to defeat at the 2005 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, and that outcome is all but guaranteed with last week’s resignation of House Speaker Thomas Finneran — scourge of gay-marriage advocates statewide. On the off chance the ban does pass, Massachusetts voters are unlikely to enshrine the bill into law in 2006, thus depriving same-sex couples who had married in the intervening two years of their hard-won status (see "Moving Forward," News and Features, April 2).

Still, the places where same-sex-marriage rights have triumphed are among the most liberal in the world. Elsewhere, gay marriage ranks among the most polarizing cultural issues. So bizarre is the matter in the minds of most Americans that it could tip the scales of the presidential election, whether or not George W. Bush cares as much about it as he would have his social-conservative base believe. But hostile attitudes toward equal marital rights for all Americans might yet be altered. Not among religious zealots, consummate bigots, and habitual malcontents, mind you, since they aren’t amenable to common sense. But another, larger cohort of opponents may be educable, who may help offset the almost inevitable backlash that will ensue from the "judicial overreaching" in "Taxachusetts" for "the gays."

How to reach them? As far as culture is concerned, the most effective educational institutions in America are not the schools, but our popular media, mainly TV and the movies. To bring Americans who are not dyed-in-the-wool reactionary partisans to a new level of consciousness requires something quite simple: the inclusion of serious gay characters in our popular culture. It’s true that over the past 10 years, gay and lesbian characters have become staples of pop-culture entertainment. But take a closer look, and you’ll see they’re all either stereotypes or closeted — not necessarily as celebrities, but in their dramatis personae. For the sake of the dignity and long-term success of our movement, and particularly for the legalization of same-sex marriage across the land, it’s time to give that imagery a radical makeover.

THE COCKEYED optimist may say: well, homosexual characters are featured in films and TV shows already. Look at Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, for instance. But Queer Eye portrays gay people as stylish and clever with ways to chooch up a room, how to dress with something resembling contemporary élan, and other pleasantly inconsequential matters. The two primary gay characters on Will & Grace are ludicrous, consummately self-interested, obsessed with roundness of the butt, and consumed with techniques for getting cute guys into bed (Jack), or only a smidgen more aware that there are other joys in life besides dishing, cruising, and pumping iron (Will). Amusing at times? Yes. Suggestive of seriousness? Hardly.

In movie and television images, homosexuals are overwhelmingly powerless, silly, flip, sex-obsessed, prone to gossip, and uninvolved in civic life, though dedicated to the proposition that a day without a lay is a day wasted. At worst, they are portrayed as predators. A few weeks ago, a rerun episode of the TV series Cold Case centered on the question: who murdered a boys’-military-academy officer who had cleverly seduced cadets? The police, realizing that the likely adolescent killers, now adults, had felt righteous anger over the officer’s attentions, ponder passing the murder off as an accident. Message? A homosexual entices, straight kids justifiably retaliate. Bravi tutti!

Although the homosexual-as-villain is no longer part of the dominant ethos, he or she is portrayed unrelentingly as an unweighty person of no importance. Heterosexuals might see a gay comic on Hollywood Squares, a gay exercise guru, or Comedy Central’s Graham Norton, all playing for effervescent laughs — sometimes inviting the audience to laugh with them, sometimes at them. But none is a positive and substantial role model for serious adults.

The homosexual left — invariably in-your-face and unerringly counterproductive in altering attitudes about gay people among straights who are not already pro-gay — has been of little help. By identifying itself as "queer," it has appropriated a term meant to deride and worn it like badge of pride. Though intended to mimic the way black street culture has inverted the slur "nigger," it doesn’t work that way at all for "queers," for the simple reason that people in a mood to insult homosexuals still feel free to fling terms like "queer" and "fag" at them. Even the most racist white person knows that you don’t call an African-American a "nigger" without risking a serious beating. (The title Queer As Folk, by the way, derives from an old British expression about the oddness of people in general: "There’s none so queer as folk." In Britain, "queer" does not have the connotation it has here.) That’s why we’ll never see a Nigger Eye for the Ofay Guy, not to mention a Kike Eye for the Goyische Guy or Gook Eye for the Anglo Guy. It’s simply inconceivable.

There’s a reason for that: people who recoiled at the inequity and unreality of a nearly all-white TV star system fought for several decades to bring blacks and Hispanics and Asians into the spotlight before the cameras, and they succeeded. There has been a vast increase in the number of blacks in lead positions in TV and movies. Indeed, you might get the idea from TV that every other judge is a black woman, that no law firm, police unit, top-flight FBI team, and on into an endless list of jobs lack a prominent black person, sometimes an Asian or Hispanic person, or, frequently, all.

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Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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