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A Queer Kind of Progress

A look at TV's gay factor -- Television shows like ''Brothers & Sisters'' and ''True Blood'' are full of LGBTQ characters that are all stereotypes

A look at TV's gay factor

Recently, I read a report called ''Where We Are on TV.'' It was issued by the media-watchdog group GLAAD — the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation — so the ''we'' in the title means gay people, like me. The conclusion of the study is that ''we'' are, like, so totally everywhere! (I'm paraphrasing.)

GLAAD says there are 16 gay, lesbian, or bisexual characters regularly appearing on prime-time network TV this fall. It seems that this is a record, and that's good news for gay viewers, who deserve some onscreen counterparts to enjoy, and also for straight folks who would like to get to know us better. Why is this important? Because when all pop culture offers is straight characters trying to explain gay people, the result can confuse impressionable viewers and/or senior government officials. For instance: A couple of weeks ago in Washington, Howard Weizmann, deputy director for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, testified before Congress against same-sex health benefits. They will lead to fraud, he warned a Senate committee. The evidence he cited was the movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, in which two heterosexual firemen pretend to be gay. ''This is not far-fetched,'' he explained. I hope he wasn't under oath.

So you can imagine how relieved I was to learn from GLAAD that our leaders will no longer have to formulate policy based on the complexities of Adam Sandler movies. But measuring progress by numbers has its limits. Does the phrase ''16 gay people on TV'' signify a giant leap forward, or just a new season of Project Runway? First of all, one of those 16 characters is on a show that's been canceled. (Adios, Do Not Disturb's ''Larry,'' whoever the hell you were!) And there's Roger the Alien, a cartoon space creature on American Dad whom GLAAD categorizes as ''omnisexual/nonhuman,'' a group shamefully underrepresented, except when Joan Rivers is doing red-carpet interviews. (Come on...Joan would think that's funny.) Another of the 16 is a character NBC mysteriously declines to identify. Well, of course there are a lot of gay people on TV if you count all the invisible ones!

The rest of the roster contains a disproportionately high number of really hot women who call themselves bisexual, which is pretty much what all gay people would look like if straight men were in charge of inventing us.

As the GLAAD report suggests, gay people do have some reason to celebrate, compared to years past. There are great gay characters on excellent shows — I particularly love the low-key, taciturn Oscar on The Office. There are ''negative'' images of gay people who triumph by being transcendently funny (I'm thinking of Devon, the predatory closet case played with go-for-broke ballsiness by Will Arnett on 30 Rock). And even some so-so shows are doing right by their gay characters: I can't stand sour, self-absorbed Kevin Walker, the gay son on Brothers & Sisters, but the show's writers give his love life the same attention as those of his four equally drama-queeny straight siblings. Even if you want to smack them all, that's progress, of a kind.

But many of TV's gay characters are too familiar — they're not ''post-gay,'' whatever that means, but retro-gay — old cliché freshened up by putting air quotes around them. I'm happy to see a gay African-American on The CW's Privileged, but disappointed that he's stuck serving as a wisdom-dispensing fairy godfather to the show's heroine. In fact, the career opportunities for TV's gay characters haven't changed much. As always, we make excellent best friends. We are also superb henchpeople (see Marc on Ugly Betty and Lloyd on Entourage) and entertaining hot messes (meet Charlie, the bisexual closeted philandering boss-boinking lawyer on TNT's Raising the Bar). And let's not forget all those vampires on True Blood. You're supposed to think of us when you see them — you know, scary minority group shunned and stereotyped by the mainstream, all-night partyers, lots of black clothes, ''tainted'' blood, the whole deal. Oh, how I hate turning on the TV and discovering that I am somebody's idea of a metaphor.

And there's one statistic GLAAD didn't list: the number of network shows, 10 years after Ellen and Will & Grace, that are built around a main character who's gay. That'd be zero. Is it just me, or does that seem a little low?

Originally posted Oct 10, 2008 Published in issue #1016 Oct 17, 2008 Order article reprints
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