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.

Ironically, it was the representation of a distinctly un-normal boy—the aristocratic, troubled, beautiful, and doomed Sebastian Flyte on the Granada dramatization of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, exactly a year after Dynasty premiered -- that gave the representation of gays on TV the cachet that only literature, and the British, seem to be able to confer. Whatever else it did, Brideshead depicted the youthful gay love affair between Sebastian and his middle-class friend, Charles Ryder, without apology or embarrassment—as something to be expected in the normal course of things. This was a revelation. To us as we watched the show -- every Monday night for 13 successive weeks, telephones off the hook, fancy dinners kept warm in the oven -- its rich and lordly milieu, the liveries and plate, the hunts and balls, made the feelings we shared with its characters seem rarefied and elevated and special. It was the spring of 1982, gay love was finally on TV, and the future was as golden as the afternoon light in which, it seemed, the early scenes of Sebastian and Charles’s love were always bathed.

By the mid-’90s, when I moved to New York City to write full-time, AIDS had made gay people more visible than ever before. But how? Not the least of the epidemic’s cultural effects was to politicize the question of how gay people were represented in pop culture. No one, needless to tell, was ever happy. If a gay character was the tiniest bit swishy, people would be up in arms denouncing “gay stereotypes”; if a gay character was “straight-acting,” people would be up in arms denouncing assimilation. Even after the most intense period of gay activism had subsided, the issues remained. For some, Will on Will & Grace was too square, not “gay enough”; but then, perhaps Jack was too gay. The central problem, it seemed to me, was that there can’t ever be an accurate representation of gay people on TV, for the very good reason that there isn’t a monolithic “gay person” to be represented.

But by then, when I was often writing about the arts and gay culture (primarily for this magazine, when it first started), it didn’t seem to matter very much. Whatever you thought about them, whether they seemed “realistic” or not, there was a huge smorgasbord of gay characters, from “straight-acting” types to queens to fey boys to jocks, and of gay story lines, on TV, in all sorts of shows: from dramas to sitcoms to cartoons. (Even Homer Simpson got kissed by a man.) That, to me, has always been the point: Like anyone else surfing during prime time, you can at least get some sense of what the options might be. And one of those options, now, if you’re a high school kid with a mad crush on another boy, is that you can let that other boy know how you feel, and that, instead of him turning away and never speaking to you again, he might just give you a kiss.

I can’t imagine, really, how things would have turned out had I been able to watch such a thing in 1975, when I was aching to see what two boys kissing might look like. But I’m sure I’d have felt less like a freak, less like what I secretly wanted was utterly impossible. Well: I was born a generation too early. I like to think that 40 years from now, when the gay kid of 2012 is watching his gay kids watching gays on TV, no one will be crying.

Tags: Television