Gays on prime time

From 'Will and Grace' to 'ER,' gay themes and characters change the TV landscape.

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In a recent episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on the WB, two of Buffy's pals share a meaningful kiss at an emotional moment. Some viewers may not have thought twice about it. But this nonpublicized kiss between two women is one sign that things have changed in the four years since the protests over the "coming out" of "Ellen" on ABC.

Turn on prime-time TV today, and you're likely to surf across about a dozen shows that feature significant gay characters - from "Spin City" to "ER." Or perhaps you'll land on one of the three programs that center on the lives of homosexuals, two of which have debuted in the last six months (CBS's sitcom "Some of My Best Friends" and Showtime's sexually explicit "Queer as Folk").

That number could grow next season when at least two more sitcoms with gay

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lead characters will likely hit the air, including a new one starring Ellen DeGeneres, who also starred in "Ellen."

Programs about gay life don't outnumber those about policemen and lawyers just yet. But their growth is prompting more discussion about what direction the genre will take, and how it is affecting the way sexuality is talked about at America's hearth.

Many in Hollywood attribute the change on TV to the groundwork laid by "Ellen" and the recent success of NBC's gay-man/straight-woman sitcom "Will & Grace" - which has won a shelffull of Emmys and and is a regular in the Top 20 ratings.

" 'Will & Grace' has had a profound effect on the landscape of gay characters on television," says Jeffery Richman, a former "Frasier" writer who has created a sitcom with a gay lead called "Say Uncle," in development for CBS.

'You need to tell some new stories'

Now that networks have realized that America can handle the idea of a gay leading character, it opens up more options for storytelling, says Mr. Richman, who is gay and stops short of calling what's happening a trend. "How many more domestic comedies or urban-cute 'Friends' knockoffs can you do? You need to break some barriers so you can tell some new stories."

Issues such as AIDS, gays in the military, and the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998 have brought more attention to the gay community in the past decade. Though the number of gay Americans is difficult to determine, 4 percent of voters identified themselves as gay or bisexual in the last presidential election, according to the Voter News Service.

Network and cable channels have aired or ordered at least three movies about Shepard - too many, say some critics. And Lifetime, the cable channel for women, had its highest ratings in five years for an original movie from a story last year about a teenage lesbian ("The Truth About Jane"). It followed up earlier this year with a movie about a lesbian fighting for custody of her child ("What Makes a Family").

"TV is really leading the way for America to talk about gay and lesbian issues," says Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a group that monitors how the media represents gay people.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled about the development. But the outcry has been far less than in the "Ellen" days, when advertisers yanked ads, and many in the public were up in arms.

A least one group, the South Dakota Family Policy Council, took out full-page newspaper ads protesting Showtime when "Queer as Folk" debuted in December. And Hawaii-based Stop Promoting Homosexuality has protested same-sex kissing on the teen drama "Dawson's Creek," which, like "Buffy," airs on the WB.

Those in the gay community say more programs with gay characters on the air help encourage tolerance and diminish isolation among gays and their families.

"What I'm moved by is the fact that I've had so many lesbian mothers come up to me and say, 'You're making the world a better place for my child,' " says Michelle Clunie, a straight actress who plays a lesbian parent on Showtime's "Queer as Folk," in an interview.

That show has developed a big following among both gay and straight viewers (especially college students and women) and is considered to be one of the first to depict homosexuals more fully. Though gay fans say the show is helping them to come out to their families, the more demure in the gay community say its man-on-the-make approach doesn't reflect their lives.

TV at the 'Sidney Poitier stage'

Over on network TV, the two sitcoms that feature gay lead characters stick more to mass appeal. "Will & Grace" and "Some of My Best Friends" both offer a lead character that is subtly gay and supporting characters that are wildly flamboyant.

"We're in the Sydney Poitier stage of gay characters," suggests conservative cultural critic Michael Medved. (Poitier broke racial barriers in films such as 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," a story of interracial romance.) In the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s, every major black character was upright and honorable and likely played by Poitier, Mr. Medved says. Likewise, today, "there's such an eagerness in the gay community for sort of compensatory treatment, that every character you meet that's gay is going to be likable."

With a few exceptions - like Billy Crystal's "Jodie Dallas" character on the series "Soap" in the 1970s - gay characters didn't start showing up in earnest on television until the 1980s, when it began to be hip to include them in ensemble casts (see the timeline above).

Medved says he thinks the growth today is likely based on novelty and that it will pass. "I'm not one of those people who believes that gay characters on TV represent the end of Western civilization as we know it," he says.

But he wonders if society is really clamoring for more gay stories, or if Hollywood is telling the public what it should want. "A Martian gathering evidence about American society, simply by monitoring our television, would certainly assume that there were more gay people in America than there are evangelical Christians," who number 20 to 30 percent of all Americans, he says.

Other observers, like Frederica Mathewes-Green, an author and a columnist for the website Beliefnet.com, say their concerns rest more with sexuality in general on TV - "the normalization of promiscuity - gay or straight," she says.

She and her family stopped watching "Ellen," for example, long before the character revealed that she was a lesbian because the show started talking about sex more openly. "Suddenly, the tone of show had changed, and we were embarrassed to watch it with our kids."

That's one issue that could create more tension in the future, as the envelope is pushed on gay-themed shows. Already programs with gay characters receive requests from the gay community to make them "gayer" - to represent homosexuals in the same way heterosexuals are depicted, including bedroom scenes.

"Gay characters are nowhere nearly as fully realized as their straight counterparts - even on 'Will & Grace'.... We want some sexuality," Mr. Seomin says.

Ironically, despite the higher profile that gay shows and characters now have, many in Hollywood still describe the celluloid city as homophobic.

Mr. Richman says he didn't believe CBS head Leslie Moonves when he warned that it would be difficult to cast "Say Uncle," a sitcom about a single gay man who takes on his sister's children when she unexpectedly dies. (Richman came up with the idea when his own sister asked him to be a guardian -not as a way to get a gay story on TV, he says.) As it turned out, casting was difficult, Richman says. Many actors passed on the part before Ken Olin ("Thirtysomething") accepted.

Richman and some actors say there is a stigma that comes with playing a gay character every week on TV (as opposed to a one-time shot in a movie) that can be tough to shake. "It's bizarre to me the closed-mindedness of the industry," Ms. Clunie of "Queer as Folk," told an audience at Boston University recently at a promotional event. "[They] still don't understand we're actors playing parts."

Success isn't guaranteed

Still, gays and lesbians are doing better than some minority groups. The last show that centered around an Asian-American, for example, was 1994's "All-American Girl," starring Margaret Cho. And there've been few sightings of high-profile Hispanic characters since Jimmy Smits and Benjamin Bratt left "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order," respectively. African-American shows are gaining ground -particularly on the WB and UPN - but they rarely crack the Top 20 ratings as "Will & Grace" have.

Not that gay themes and characters mean automatic success. "Will & Grace" may be a ratings darling, but last fall, Fox's "Normal, Ohio," starring John Goodman as a gay dad, was canceled after just six weeks.

"Some of My Best Friends," a comedy about gay and straight male roommates, made CBS the last of the Big Three networks to try a gay-themed sitcom in recent years. The show has struggled since its February debut (according to Nielsen, it ranked No. 70 out of 137 shows in the week ending April 1).

"We certainly hope to see better ratings," says CBS spokesman Chris Ender.

Many observers say the popularity of shows with gay themes is not because of a fascination with gay life, but because several of the latest ones are well written.

"I hope that if we get on television that people don't say, 'Oh it's that gay show,' " says Richman of his potential sitcom. "I hope they say, 'It's that great show. It's that funny show.'"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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