Cover Story

Selling 'Out'

Pop culture loosens its straight jacket

Whether you're dancing at a club to Erasure's newest single, lined up at a movie theater to catch Clueless, or zoning out in front of your TV with Melrose Place, chances are you're hearing and seeing more gay images than ever before. The gay wave in pop culture may have started with a shift in attitudes, but it all comes down to product, and, for the most part, current entertainment that deals with gay characters or issues treats them tolerantly and sympathetically. Here, a selective consumer guide to what's available now and what's waiting in the wings for you to tune in, turn on, or tune out.

Movies

WHAT'S OUT NOW: Two independent films — the comedy Jeffrey, based on Paul Rudnick's play, and Maria Maggenti's The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love — detail the perils of gay romance. And several current films feature gay characters, like Clueless, in which Alicia Silverstone's character flirts up the wrong tree before being told that the object of her affection, a James Dean wannabe played by Justin Walker, is a ''disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading ... friend of Dorothy.'' (They stay pals.) For a gay character who's both gay and a character, check out Unzipped, the hilarious documentary about fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi (directed by Mizrahi's ex-lover Douglas Keeve). And for subtext and in-jokes galore, Batman Forever is still playing.

WHAT'S COMING UP: This month brings producer Steven Spielberg's To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, a drag-queens-phone-home dramedy in which Patrick Swayze (with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo) moves one woman to confide: ''I don't think of you as a man, I don't think of you as a woman. I think of you as an angel.'' More down-to-earth is November's Carrington, starring Jonathan Pryce as gay writer Lytton Strachey and Emma Thompson as his adoring companion. Thompson's husband, Kenneth Branagh, may star in Barbra Streisand's film version of The Normal Heart, based on Larry Kramer's play about the AIDS epidemic, which should roll next April. And this winter's It's My Party stars Eric Roberts as a man with AIDS who gathers friends for a final fiesta.

THE LAST HOLDOUTS: Yes, there was that gay-baiting window-tossing scene in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, but hostile portrayals of gay characters in movies are now a rarity. The biggest enemy gay characters face is the cutting-room floor: The gay relationship included in this fall's Angus, about a boy ridiculed for having a homosexual father, was reportedly scissored by New Line after it tested poorly with audiences. And beware the straight-to-video flick Fall Time, starring Mickey Rourke and Stephen Baldwin as gay criminals with a penchant for deviant behavior; one scene shows Baldwin raping a male hostage.

THE NEW FRONTIER: With young gay directors like Todd Haynes (Safe), Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation), Jennie Livingston (Paris Is Burning), and Maria Maggenti (Two Girls in Love) moving up in Hollywood, the biggest strides aren't just on screen. ''More studios are picking up gay-directed films from festivals,'' says Robert Nowland, a spokesman for GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). ''And with larger movies like Boys on the Side and Four Weddings and a Funeral that include gay characters, the images are a lot more positive and inclusive.''

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