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.

A few years later, when I was 12 or 13, I had a better idea about myself, and was fervently hoping that the available options, once I grew up, were going to be more like Don and less like Dr. Smith. But the picture in the early 1970s wasn’t a very hopeful one. As far as I knew, the only person who was clearly, identifiably gay on TV was Paul Lynde. We’d already grown to know him as Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. He was another of those crypto-homosexual characters from whom so many of us absorbed our first images of gayness: a mincing prankster in double-breasted plaid suits with exaggerated gestures and a hyena laugh. In Lynde’s case, you didn’t have to guess what his predilections were: As a perennial guest star on Hollywood Squares, Lynde could be startlingly open in his hints about his homosexuality. (Host, giving a clue: “You’re the world’s most popular fruit. What are you?” Lynde: “Humble.”) Slightly more sinister to me, then, was the constant basso continuo of -- I didn’t know the word then -- kink, the dark allusions that slithered and hissed just behind Lynde’s humor. When given the clue, “George Bernard Shaw once wrote, ‘It’s such a wonderful thing, what a crime to waste it on children.’ What is it?” Lynde replied, “A whipping.”

And yet even as I puzzled over the thought that being gay was somehow tied up with being someone who enjoyed pain, I was also learning from Lynde. The endless indulgence in double entendre, the resort to coded language: I understood, these could be useful tools in a world in which forthrightness was impossible. There was also a lesson learned, perhaps, from Uncle Arthur: You could survive in a treacherous world by being amusing, by being an entertainer. What you felt, you hid, or you encoded; what you said must be witty, and harmless.

Who hasn’t learned how to kiss from the movies? What I was desperate to see in the mid-’70s, when I was 14 and 15 and 16, was precisely what the pop culture wasn’t ready to show me -- the images that all my straight friends had been casually absorbing all along: what desire and sex, kissing and lovemaking, happy coupling actually looked like. I literally had no idea what two boys holding hands, or kissing, looked like. As with so many gay teens, the only screen on which those images were flickering on was the overactive theater of my imagination. I often wonder whether the ease with which so many of us gay men adapted to the world of online desiring -- the porn, the hookup sites, the idealized images unencumbered by personality or responsibility -- wasn’t the result of those early years of solitary fantasizing. When you spend your formative adolescent years in the bubble of your own erotic creations, reality can seem an intrusion.

There were two watershed TV events in the ’80s; between them, they encapsulated the energies—earnest, seemingly unfulfillable erotic yearning, blithe camp fun—that animated us gay twentysomethings just then. The Disco ’70s were over. Long hair and bellbottoms and Donna Summer were by now risible; Bruce Weber’s Bear Pond and GQ were bringing back a conservative, pseudo-’50s aesthetic that was the visual expression of the Reagan ideal; and when I was a junior and senior at UVA, as the ’80s began, we gay boys felt like we had it all, nothing to prove and on top of the world.

As if to confirm this, Dynasty hit in January, 1981, halfway through my junior year. It was the first show I could remember seeing that had an attractive young gay character -- Steven Carrington, the blond, all-American Princeton-grad son of the oil tycoon, Blake Carrington, whose emphatic blandness was clearly meant to “balance” his gayness. But still, it was something to see a gay character on prime-time, big-time TV who wasn’t a joke or a swish. OK, yes, there was the subplot in which Steve fell and hit his head and woke up straight (straightened out by none other than Heather Locklear). And yes, it’s true that after Moldavian terrorists machine-gunned the Carringtons and the other guests at the royal wedding at the climax of the final episode of the penultimate season, the only character who turned out to be dead, when the final season premiered three months later, was Steven’s super-cute dark-haired lover, Luke. Still, for all we laughed, there was no denying that it was exciting to see on TV a gay guy who wasn’t, in the end, all that different from us or the people we knew—a young man trying to find a boyfriend.

So there was a kind of loopy earnestness there. But of course a key element of Dynasty’s appeal was the camp factor: The witchy glamor of Alexis -- in a way, a distant relative of Endora on Bewitched -- was irresistible. The notorious catfights between Alexis and Krystle, the cracklingly bitchy brunette and the ingenuous, blond, were a visual representation of the tense currents you felt as a gay man watching the show, caught between (as it were) Paul Lynde, the character you both reviled and learned from, and the nice, pretty normal boy you felt you were -- or, perhaps, felt you wanted.

Tags: Television