Years be­fore rul­ing, pop cul­ture helped build ac­cep­tance

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Scott Collins and Mered­ith Blake

For decades, gays and les­bians were al­most in­vis­i­ble in film and tele­vi­sion. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in the larger cul­ture was draped in code words, and on­screen de­pic­tions ei­ther dis­guised gays and les­bians or treated them as ob­jects of ridicule or scorn.

Then things started to change. In 1969, the Stonewall ri­ots trig­gered by a po­lice raid in New York’s Green­wich Vil­lage cre­ated the mod­ern gay rights move­ment, and the next year Wil­liam Fried­kin’s “The Boys in the Band” be­came the first stu­dio movie to cen­ter on gay char­ac­ters.

From that start, pop cul­ture has slowly but steadily helped bring gay peo­ple into the main­stream, from Lance Loud in the ground­break­ing 1973 PBS doc­u­men­tary “An Amer­i­can Fam­ily” to Tom Hanks’ Os­car-win­ning role as a dy­ing lawyer in “Philadelphia” in 1993 to Pe­dro Zamora, the AIDS-stricken house­mate on the 1994 edi­tion of MTV’s re­al­ity se­ries “The Real World.”

The Supreme Court on Fri­day le­gal­ized same-sex mar­riage na­tion­wide. But years be­fore that 5-4 de­ci­sion, film and TV helped spur Amer­i­cans’ ac­cep­tance of gays and les­bians.

“Movies and tele­vi­sion have played an im­mense role in get­ting us here — and I’m go­ing to take some credit for the TV side,” said Michael Lom­bardo, the pro­gram­ming pres­i­dent of HBO, which brought the gay-themed plays “An­gels in Amer­ica” and “The Nor­mal Heart” to tele­vi­sion, and has promi­nently fea­tured gay char­ac­ters on such se­ries as “Six Feet Un­der,” “Sex and the City” and “Look­ing,” about the re­la­tion­ships of a group of gay friends in San Fran­cisco.

“TV has been a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence be­cause it brings the lives of gays and les­bians into peo­ple’s homes and that has in­creased peo­ple’s un­der­stand­ing,” added Lom­bardo, who is gay.

Per­haps the wa­ter­shed mo­ment was the 1997 episode of ABC’s sit­com “Ellen,” in which star Ellen DeGeneres came out to 42 mil­lion view­ers (and some advertiser back­lash). But there are many other ex­am­ples of pop­u­lar film and TV shows that have in­flu­enced public opin­ion.

Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den fa­mously said in 2012 that the NBC sit­com “Will & Grace” had “done more to ed­u­cate the public” about gay is­sues than nearly any­thing else.

The mes­sage of in­clu­sive­ness has of­ten been told through com­edy, as when Mitch and Cam, the ever-bick­er­ing cou­ple on ABC’s “Mod­ern Fam­ily,” fi­nally got mar­ried last year. The Bravo re­al­ity se­ries “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” hu­mor­ously fea­tured a team of gay ex­perts of­fer­ing clue­less het­ero­sex­ual men tips on cul­ture, fash­ion and other top­ics.

A 2012 sur­vey con­ducted by an in­de­pen­dent polling firm for the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter found that sup­port for same-sex mar­riage was in­creas­ing be­cause of shows such as “Mod­ern Fam­ily” and “Glee.” Forty-two per­cent of those polled — and 55% of those younger than 35 — said that de­pic­tions of same-sex mar­riage on TV shows had made them more aware of the is­sue.

Many in Hol­ly­wood saw the Supreme Court de­ci­sion as a be­lated con­fir­ma­tion of an is­sue al­ready re­solved by or­di­nary Amer­i­cans.

“I’m sur­prised the de­ci­sion wasn’t more one-sided be­cause public opin­ion al­ready seemed to be over­whelm­ingly there,” said Bob Green­blatt, the chair­man of NBC En­ter­tain­ment, in a state­ment. He also hap­pens to be gay. “I’m priv­i­leged to work in an in­dus­try that has al­ways worked to por­tray pos­i­tive im­ages of LGBT peo­ple and tell their hu­man sto­ries, which I be­lieve has played an im­por­tant part in ad­vanc­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.”

That con­ver­sa­tion has come a long way since July 1985, when movie icon Rock Hud­son ap­peared in public look­ing gaunt and sick, shock­ing fans and spark­ing ru-

mors that he was suf­fer­ing from AIDS. Hud­son’s pub­li­cist later con­firmed the di­ag­no­sis and the star died that Oc­to­ber, fol­lowed by rev­e­la­tions about his life as a clos­eted gay man.

Fundrais­ing for AIDS re­search spiked af­ter Hud­son’s death, but pop­u­lar ac­cep­tance of gays and les­bians was slow in com­ing. Prior to the 1970s, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was al­most never di­rectly ad­dressed in pop cul­ture; even the plays of Ten­nessee Wil­liams, con­sid­ered ground­break­ing in their day, shrouded the is­sue in eu­phemism.

The 1972 TV movie “That Cer­tain Sum­mer,” with Hal Hol­brook and Martin Sheen, was the first to deal sym­pa­thet­i­cally with a gay char­ac­ter within the medium that dom­i­nated the Amer­i­can liv­ing room. But such por­tray­als were few and far be­tween dur­ing that decade.

Con­ser­va­tives were out­raged when Billy Crys­tal played a gay man on the racy sit­com “Soap,” which ran from 1977 through 1981 — although that char­ac­ter later re­versed him­self and be­came straight.

The AIDS cri­sis, for years seen as a “gay plague,” changed hearts and minds. The media were filled with obituaries of Hud­son and other celebri­ties who died of the dis­ease, forc­ing some Amer­i­cans to re­con­sider their op­po­si­tion to gay rights on moral or re­li­gious grounds.

As a mat­ter of public health and dis­ease preven­tion, sex­ual mat­ters once con­sid­ered un­men­tion­able be­came part of ev­ery­day dis­course. Ac­tivists, bor­row­ing from the civil rights move­ment, pointed out the ways in which high-flown rhetoric about hu­man rights and dig­nity did not match of­fi­cial re­sponses to the gay health cri­sis.

In pop cul­ture, a key turn­ing point may have been the 1994 sea­son 3 tele­cast of “The Real World,” which fea­tured Zamora, a Cuban-Amer­i­can AIDS ed­u­ca­tor and ac­tivist.

Zamora’s public strug­gle with the ill­ness prompted a sup­port­ive phone call from Pres­i­dent Clin­ton and was in­stru­men­tal in shap­ing the views of mil­len­ni­als, who sub­se­quently be­came strong sup­port­ers of the move­ment to le­gal­ize same-sex mar­riage.

What fol­lowed were an in­creas­ing num­ber of se­ries that of­fered gay char­ac­ters from count­less per­spec­tives, such as “Queer as Folk” and “The L-Word.”

Youth-skew­ing se­ries such as “Ever­wood” and the teen hit “De­grassi” joined in. And a grow­ing num­ber of stars came out, in­clud­ing DeGeneres, Rosie O’Don­nell and Neil Pa­trick Harris.

Such rev­e­la­tions have not al- ways been greeted warmly. The Amer­i­can Fam­ily Assn., a con­ser­va­tive ad­vo­cacy group, urged a boy­cott of “Ellen,” and sev­eral large com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Wendy’s and J.C. Pen­ney, shied away from the se­ries (DeGeneres, iron­i­cally, later be­came a spokes­woman for J.C. Pen­ney, spark­ing more protests from right-wing groups).

“Star Trek’s” Ge­orge Takei came out in 2005, partly as a protest against then-Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger’s veto of same-sex mar­riage leg­is­la­tion.

“These land­marks helped push the con­ver­sa­tion for­ward,” said Matt Kane, the di­rec­tor of en­ter­tain­ment media for GLAAD, a gayrights ad­vo­cacy group that grew out of its founders’ un­hap­pi­ness with de­pic­tions of gays and les­bians in mass media.

In­deed, some ex­perts see the same change hap­pen­ing this year with the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity. Cait­lyn Jen­ner, who tran­si­tioned to a woman re­cently af­ter four decades of celebrity as the for­mer Olympian Bruce Jen­ner, will star in the up­com­ing E! se­ries “I Am Cait.”

Such mo­ments point once again to Hol­ly­wood’s unique role in ref lect­ing chang­ing so­cial at­ti­tudes.

As Robert Thompson, a TV scholar at Syra­cuse Univer­sity, put it: “You don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to point to a Jackie Robin­son mo­ment. It’s the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of all these por­tray­als.”

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