Column from gay author Charles-Gene McDaniel


Getting There

Why do we have to be like "them"? Why can’t we be who we are, preserve our uniqueness and not be victimized by homophobes?

Many straight persons who claim to be gay-friendly are friendly only when gay men and lesbians act like them, vanilla mid-Americans who blend into middle-class banality. It’s a different matter when gay men hold hands in public or -- GASP! -- kiss hello or goodbye, notwithstanding other cultures where putatively heterosexual men pucker up for each other and hold hands. In some Mediterranean countries, Russia and other East European countries, even some Muslim countries, male-to-male kissy face is routine, as is holding hands, which men in some African nations do. Paradoxically, or perhaps not, women holding hands and kissing, whether straight or lesbian, evoke no negative responses. Those, after all, are feminine things and macho men do not feel threatened by their own repressed heterophile desires and envy. Indeed, hetero men get off on watching two women getting it on, whether their wives or girlfriends or two lesbians, live or on video.

In the United States the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons see the tactile expression of same-sex friendship as the bellwether of the destruction of civilization. They, however, are trying to hold back the inevitable tsunami. We’re a long way from social equality and acceptance, but the undercurrent is rising if not roiling. And those who act like "them" will get there first. Meanwhile, even among some middle-class white gay men and lesbians there continues to be hostility toward those who camp, are queenly, dress in drag or leather, sissy boys, bike dykes, bears and any others who call attention to their sexual orientation. The religious fundamentalists generalize from the annual Gay Pride parades to argue that the outrageous fun on display is typical of all gay and lesbian public activity. However, they do not generalize to the heterosexual world the screwball behavior and sexual harassment of women at Shriner and American Legion parades.

Homogenization is not what gay men and lesbians should seek in their quest for social equality, any more than homogenization of ethnic cultures in the hodge-podge of American society is desirable. Deviance from the perceived vanilla norm is what makes life interesting. Some of us like chocolate, others like tacos. Neither is a superior preference.

Meanwhile, centimeter by centimeter, the broader society is being exposed to the humanity of the sexual "other" without the retribution of a cataclysm. It has taken a long and torturous climb but gradually there is widespread public awareness that we are indeed everywhere, despite the fact that we cannot legally marry and that same-sex activity is still criminal in many states and gay/lesbian people are denied custody of their children and the right to adopt children who will remain in institutions or bounced from one foster family to another. But that, too, is changing, with the very public championship of Rosie O’Donnell.

In her recent book All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America, the sociologist Suzanna Danuta Walters (University of Chicago Press) traces the gradual appearance of gay men and lesbians on television and in films, as well as in newspapers and magazines and advertising and marketing campaigns. Yet, except on cable, gay men and lesbians do not have serious sustained same-sex relationships; they are not depicted naked in bed or kissing passionately. That queers are not given the depth of life ascribed to opposite-sex relationships reflects the still widely held attitude that queers are incapable of love and long-term commitment. There is, progress, however. Except for Americans living in caves or trailers in the mountains, almost everyone is aware that we do exist and that we look like everybody else except when we try to look different.

Depictions of gay men and lesbians on television, cable and film are mostly non-threatening to broader audiences in that the relationships usually are frivolous or comic or involve AIDS, and do not, except on Six Feet Under, depict interracial gay relationships. Long-term same-sex relationships rarely exist in these media. On network television and big-studio films there are no naked men or women in bed with a member of the same sex and there are no passionate kisses, let alone the simulated sex between heterosexuals that is shown.

One of the first films to show men kissing was Longtime Companion in 1991. It was a story about AIDS, as were numerous subsequent films, like It’s My Party, Jeffrey, Philadelphia and Love! Valour! Compassion! Being gay = being sick. Prior to 1970 there were the movies Boys in the Band, a filmed version of a stage play that was essentially pathological, and Torch Song Trilogy, a serio-comic film also based on a stage play. There are even fewer depictions of healthy lesbian relationships, except for Personal Best. Likewise, people of color almost never are shown in same-sex relationships, whether cross-color or same. CBS showed the series Tales of the City that involves both gay male and lesbian, as well as heterosexual, relationships. Even though this series was highly praised and very popular, the network lacked the spine to show the second series, which was picked up by PBS.

Cross-dressing, which is not a gay thing, always is shown for comedy, as in La Cage aux Folles, the stage play, later turned into the movie Birdcage; the movies Priscilla Queen of the Desert and To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Many, if not most, of the men who cross-dress are heterosexual and tend to be Republican, fundamentalist Christian and corporate executives, including a hefty number of retired military officers. Amy Bloom in an excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly (April 2002) titled "Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses" captures the pain that these men cause for their wives, who outwardly accept and support them. One of the men she interviewed is in fact a Baptist preacher. The fulminating Bible thumpers would be surprised if they knew how many men in their congregations were wearing frilly underthings and got up in fully female regalia with makeup and wig.

Recently cable television has been challenging the Neanderthalian networks for audiences, especially young audiences. MTV regularly depicts same-sex expressions of affection, although no nudity. The most cutting-edge of all shows is the brilliant Queer as Folk on Showtime, a series that has proved popular among straight women because of its depiction of relationships. And it is rare for women to get to see naked men in the media, even though pussy-hound men can get a surfeit. Walters, herself a lesbian, takes the PC view that the series is not representative of gay/lesbian life and is marked by rampant promiscuity. This is an unfair criticism. The series is presented as entertainment, not as a documentary. Besides, how many women are as promiscuous as those in Sex in the City? Given the opportunity, heterosexual men also would be as promiscuous as they presume gay men are. The bad-boy actor Charlie Sheen claims famously to have had sex with 5,000 women, and Gene Simmons of the rock band Kiss says in a recent memoir that he has had sex with 4,600 women and has taken Polaroid pictures of most of them. Are these the family values promoted by the televangelists and others of the rabid right?

Another brilliant cable series is OZ on HBO, a violent prison drama tempered by same-sex love that evolves in a unisexual environment where men are confined for years at a time. This series allows same-sex love to involve same-sex sex, as it should, and it shows more full-frontal male nudity than anything short of porno flicks. But it is natural and sometimes beautiful. There’s no wonder that this series is popular among gay men.

On the whole, Walters’ book is an excellent chronicle of the progress and egregious failings in depicting gay men and lesbians in the media. It also is a rarity in academic publishing. She uses the vertical pronoun -- I -- when it’s called for, abjuring the passive voice the silly third-person "this writer."

We’ve come a long way, babes, but we have quite a way to go.