Any article that starts with, "The pop culture gay flavor of the minute? White gay dads," will likely have me digging my fingernails into my palms by the time I scroll down to the bottom of the page. Ta da! Congrats, NPR, because you managed to incite my first internet-based rage of 2013!
In an article accompanying a story that ran this morning on the air, NPR writer Neda Ulaby discovers that our television sets are blowin’ up with friendly, proud, and out gay men who are showing the world how it can get better, or something. Yes, on Modern Family and The New Normal, there are white dudes who have sex with each other (but not onscreen, because ewwwww) and procreating with the help of, I dunno, white women and Asian adoption agencies. Breaking news, gang!
It’s a mini-boomlet, says real-life white gay dad and sociology professor Joshua Gamson. Not too long ago, he says, pop culture once mainly defined gay men as promiscuous and deviant, rather than monogamous and devoted to their families.
"It does seem like a strong counterstereotype of how gay men have been portrayed over the past, whatever, 50 years," he said.
A boomlet! Cute! The article also mentions, obviously, Will & Grace, whose creator, Max Mutchnik, also created the similarly gay-themed (and immediately cancelled) Partners. And, obviously, there’s the king of Gay TV, Ryan Murphy, who is responsible for Glee (gay teenagers!), The New Normal (gays who love NeNe Leakes!), and American Horror Story (murdered lesbians! a male ghost in a pleather body suit who rapes and kills a gay couple!). Sure, there’s also Max on Happy Endings, the lovably sarcastic and dumpy gay guy, but even his romantic prospects are hardly ever the focus of an episode (I say that regretfully, because I do love that show).
To give some balance to this piece, After Ellen‘s Trish Bendix gives some solid points about the representation of queer women on television:
"Well, actually, there have been a lot of women of color, which has been great," said Trish Bendix, who runs a website called After Ellen that tracks lesbian representation on television. She rattled off at least a half-dozen shows with nonwhite queer female characters: White Collar, The Good Wife, Underemployed, Pretty Little Liars, Grey’s Anatomy, Glee.
But too often, says Bendix, these are small roles played by exoticized, slinky femmes. "Like, ‘the other’ is always going to be the other," she observed ruefully. "So we’ll just pile all that otherness on the one person."
It’s true, though. After we’re done compiling lists of all the gay men on TV, can we narrow down which ones are not white? Because, let’s be honest, the modern definition of "gay" seems to be "white man who lives in the city and shops with all of his disposable income." And on top of that, do any of those men have personalities that don’t fit into a masculine-feminine binary? Because, you see, all gay men are either super queeny or straight acting, if The New Normal is to be believed. Or, perhaps even worse, any gay man who does not seem to be floating on Cloud Nine is, in turn, doomed, or perhaps evil, as one can see from any queer character on American Horror Story or Thomas from Downton Abbey, who is brought up at the end of the NPR article as a "character [who] once might have been seen as a homophobic stereotype [but now] blends into an ever-expanding universe." (Lemme know if that universe ever expands to include some queers who aren’t trying to screw over everyone they encounter.)
The point is this: we’ve come a long way in terms of the way gay men are represented on television. But we’ve only made it half way. Should we have congratulated the people behind Soap for creating the first regular gay character on a sitcom, or do you think we’re allowed to acknowledge the borderline homophobic humor surrounding the man’s (played by a straight guy, naturally) decision to "become straight" by pursuing a sex-change? Looking back on it, that was kind of screwed up, huh?
Hopefully in another twenty years or so we’ll have progressed to a place where we’re not just patting ourselves on the back for putting gay men on TV and saying, "Good work, everyone! Now, to collect the checks!" Because there’s a larger world of queer people out there who are still not represented, and its clear that there’s little to no interest in those who don’t fit into the whitewashed gay world that’s being packaged for middle America, just slightly and cheekily enough not to rock any boats.
Follow Tyler Coates on Twitter.