Gay TV and Me


By Daniel Mendelsohn

How my life would be different if boys were kissing boys onscreen 40 years ago -- like they are today.

The boys were kissing, I was crying, my friend was laughing at me. It was the evening of March 15, 2011, and during that night’s episode of Glee, Kurt and Blaine had finally kissed -- full-on, mouth-to-mouth, no “tasteful” cutaways. A friend called to ask what I’d thought of it; when I answered the phone, I could hear the noises of his weekly Glee get-together in the background, with some celebratory woo-hoos added to the mix.

My own mood was different. The boys’ kiss left me in tears.

“So?” my friend asked. He knew that for years I’d been making the same tired complaint about the hypocrisies of pop entertainment: In an era in which network television could (and would) show raunchy three-ways, brutal serial killings, and graphic wartime violence, the only thing still considered “offensive” was to show two men kissing.

At the drop of a hat, I’d go into my satirical History of Gay Non-Kissing in Popular Culture spiel, lingering with special indignation on the climactic moment in Making Love, an earnestly sympathetic melodrama about an M-M-F triangle that came out in 1982, a year after I did; in it, the sexy, bee-stung, motorcycle-racing gay rake played by Harry Hamlin finally puts the moves on a prim, “questioning” doctor (Michael Ontkean) by… hugging him.

Things had got better since then, of course, and there had been other gay kisses on TV and in movies before the Kurt-Blaine lip-lock that night. But there was something special about the Glee kiss, something that made it feel like a fulfillment. The high school milieu, for one thing: Most of us begin our long histories of desiring in our early teens, and the longings that impel us then, and the fantasies they create, haunt us long afterward, often for the rest of our lives.

In the case of people my age, born in the 1960s, teenagers in the 1970s, before the tectonic sociological shifts of the 1980s that finally put gay people and their issues front and center in American culture, those longings were, more often than not, frustrated and ashamed. The idea of finding true love—mutual love—in high school was, quite simply, unimaginable. When, in the fall of 1977, I finally confessed my feelings to the swimming star I’d been crushing on all through high school, he crisply informed me that he’d never speak a word to me again.

My friend knew all of this, which is why we’d been following the developments in Glee for a while -- and why he exultantly called me the night the two Glee boys kissed. “So?” he repeated.

But I couldn’t talk; I was sniffling. He giggled. “You’re such a sap!” he said. I cleared my throat. “Fine, yes, I’m a sap.” Then I added a thought I’ve often repeated since. “But I think my whole life would have turned out differently if that episode had aired in 1975, when I was 15, instead of 2011.”

At which my friend, who’s just a few years younger than I am, suddenly grew serious and said, “Yes.”

It’s difficult today to convey how utterly isolated you felt as a gay child growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. This isn’t to say that it’s not still an ordeal for many: As we know, the bullying and terror and torment are just as prevalent in many places. But one crucial thing has changed. The gay teen today has grown up in a culture that has become pretty casual about representations of gay people—in movies, TV, music, literature, advertising. And then there’s the Internet: Access to information, discussion groups, and forums can at least give a gay youngster some notion of what being gay might be like and who’s actually out there.

Part of the torture of growing up gay 40 years ago, by contrast, was precisely that there was nothing out there that you could look at and say, “That’s me.” If you secretly liked other boys, you were pretty much convinced that you were the only boy in the world who had these feelings about other boys—or that, if you weren’t, there was no way to make contact with them. The only place to see another gay boy was in the mirror.

And what little there was on TV and movie screens was pretty scary. When I was six or seven, I was allowed to stay up late on Wednesdays—till 7:30, that is—to watch my favorite show, Lost in Space, a sci-fi updating of The Swiss Family Robinson. Already at some dim level I was aware that I was far more interested in the handsome dark-haired copilot, Don, than I was in his beauteous blond love-interest, Judy; much less dimly, I was aware that there was something “wrong” with the show’s villain, the stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith. Pretty much every episode was generated by some conflict between the Robinsons, a space-age idealization of the all-American family, and the cowardly Dr. Smith. I couldn’t know it then, but Smith was being played as a queen: mincing, fussy, his vocabulary too high (“Oh the pain! The agony!”), his motivations too low. (In every confrontation with aliens, he’d either collaborate or flee.) Even at seven, I perceived that he was, somehow, “gay”—this, even though I didn’t really know what gay was.

Tags: Television