Cover Story

Special Report: The Gay 90's

America Sees Shades of Gay: A Once-Invisible Group Finds the Spotlight

Maybe it began, as so many things do, with Madonna and the world's desire to dance. Five years ago, she siphoned from the homosexual fringes of Harlem an outrageous dance tradition called ''voguing'' and spiked straight, white, mainstream dance clubs with it. Or maybe it was Tom Hanks, accepting an Academy Award for his portrayal of a gay lawyer in Philadelphia, and tearfully thanking his high school drama teacher and a classmate — ''two of the finest gay Americans that I had the good fortune to be associated with'' — before a billion movie fans around the world. Maybe it happened aeons ago, when David Bowie ventured out for his very first purchase of eye shadow.

Maybe it happened hundreds of times over the last decade, in ways just as important — and just as forgettable. It's never easy to trace the roots of a revolution, especially in something as quicksilver and ephemeral as pop culture. But however it all began, look at where it's led:

Just as Elvis and his ilk plumbed African-American musical traditions and turned them into mainstream rock & roll in the 1950s, moviemakers, TV producers, media people, and rock stars have turned entertainment on its head by freely mining the gay culture for its sarcasm and style, its glitter and grit, its secrets and celebrations. In 1995, the gay stream flows freely into the mainstream.

Just look around — look everywhere. Gay characters are multiplying on screens big and small. Comedy's most popular styles now utilize the gay sensibility — a reliance on irony that's omni present in products as varied as Letterman (not him, just his raised eyebrow) and The Lion King (in which Timon and Pumbaa are ... well, whatever you want them to be). The old-fashioned gay-baiting humor of Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay has been rendered obsolete by gay-friendly entertainment. On Frasier, the hero inadvertently asks a guy for a date. On Roseanne, the heroine was quite purposefully kissed by a girl. On Broadway, gay-themed works are the most dominant genre, and for three seasons, gay-themed plays by gay playwrights (Tony Kushner's two-part Angels in America and, most recently, Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!) have won Broadway's top honors and scored movie deals for their authors.

The revolution has happened two ways: gradually and suddenly. As recently as 1984 Harvey Fierstein shocked the world by publicly thanking his lover on the CBS Tony Awards telecast. At this year's Tonys, many such expressions of gentle demonstrativeness went almost unnoticed. In 1978, it seemed unthinkable that the charming French farce La Cage Aux Folles, about a nightclub owner and his drag-queen lover, could reach beyond audiences who didn't mind subtitles. But in 1983 it became a hit Broadway musical, and next year it will become a major American movie — Birds of a Feather, starring Robin Williams and (in the dress) Nathan Lane. And in music, Elton John, k.d. lang, and Melissa Etheridge have done what was unthinkable until very recent memory: They've come out and continued to work. If anything, they've worked more. (Now Boy George is angling for a career revival by addressing his new album's love songs to men.)

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