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

By Jess Cagle
September 08, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
Entertainment Weekly

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.)

But gay culture has brought about even more basic changes — sometimes changes as fundamental as how things look. The erotic male form once strutted only in marginal venues–either below the mass-culture radar (all-male pornography) or above it (the walls of art museums). Now it’s right up there at your local mall, helping sell tickets to the year’s top-grossing film, Batman Forever. Chris O’Donnell’s batsuit features a strikingly commodious codpiece; and are we wrong, or does the Riddler have a little crush on Bruce Wayne? Batman Forever is, in fact, emblematic of the new, mutual inclusiveness — the give and take and take back — of gay and straight audiences. Its sex appeal bids for the attention of all sexual persuasions; so do its jokes, and the screen winks broadly in all directions.

What force roiled this sea change? A mission by Hollywood to (a) eradicate all forms of bigotry and homophobia, or (b) to destroy the values upon which society rests? Not on your lifestyle. Quite simply, gay sells. As the success of last year’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert will tell you, gold lamé on a man is as good as gold. So it’s no accident that advertising was at the vanguard of the gaying of America as the first business to realize that homosexuals comprised a very desirable demographic. Not the largest demographic, but one with powerful handfuls of disposable income.

The most striking and omnipresent outgrowth of that awakening has been the mass marketing of erotic male images. Calvin Klein pioneered the movement more than a decade ago by plastering Times Square with an enormous, indelible Bruce Weber billboard of a hunk in his underwear, hands creeping precariously close to his nether regions. Then, during the proliferation of daytime talk shows throughout the 1980s, male strippers began gyrating in middle-class, middle-American living rooms on a daily basis. Now straight men are expected to be just as moussed and buffed as their gay counterparts; and they are subtly pressured to emulate the exhibitionistic sex appeal of models like Marky Mark and Michael Bergin, who have posed seductively in ads intended to sell shorts not just to gay men, but to all men.

Heterosexual women have long been inveigled to buy lipstick worn by gorgeous models in advertising, but now Versace targets them with overtly homoerotic ads. Chalk it up to “lesbian chic,” a trend that was spawned as Madonna and Sandra Bernhard flirted in 1991’s Truth or Dare, grew as playfully ambiguous style arbiter Ingrid Casares began showing up in paparazzi photos everywhere, and crested with Cindy Crawford shaving k.d. lang’s face on the August 1993 issue of Vanity Fair. This curious media trend may have passed, but lesbians have kept their media cachet. Says Sarah Pettit, editor of the lesbian and gay newsmagazine Out: “Straight women are looking around thinking, ‘Is she one? Am I one?’ And they’re kind of titillated by it.”

Gradually, the entertainment industry came to realize that gay can sell a niche-market art film (such as the minor summer hit The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love), as well as help to sell a film with crossover appeal (Four Weddings and a Funeral). Androgyny chic has ushered in a new brand of movie star: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Keanu Reeves would all once have been called sissies. In music, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe use sexual ambiguity as a marketing tool — enigmas wrapped in mysteries, they’re all things to all persuasions.

Which leads to any number of bewildering questions. Stallone may be straight and RuPaul may be gay, but what about everybody in between? There’s Frasier’s brother Niles, for example, and the slightly drag-queeny dames of The Nanny and Absolutely Fabulous. Not gay per se, but something. “It’s all become one bright pop blur,” marvels gay playwright-screenwriter Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values; Jeffrey). Out concurred: “It’s still a straight world, but straight isn’t looking quite as narrow these days.”

Nowhere is the phenomenon more evident than in the proliferation of gay characters in film and TV. And no longer are these characters solely the province of one “very special episode” per year. They populate Roseanne, and have for a while. NBC’s smash Friends features a recurring lesbian character (David Schwimmer’s intensely sympathetic ex-wife) and her lover. NYPD Blue‘s gay male replacement receptionist (whose boyfriend happens to be a cop) proved so popular last season that the show’s producers are bringing him back this fall. And the most conscientious writers and producers pride themselves on making these characters real — not just real funny. Explains David Lee, the gay cocreator of Frasier and director of last season’s accidental date episode, “There was humor in the situation [the characters] found themselves in, but you weren’t laughing at anyone because he was gay.” The episode sparked high ratings and is up for Emmys both for its script, by gay writer Joe Keenan, and its direction.

Of course, humor is always in the eye of the beholder, and as the culture has become increasingly gay-friendly, purveyors of product must walk a political tightrope. Are the drag queens of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar a celebration of life outside the closet? Or are the straight actors in sequins performing the gay equivalent of a minstrel show? Depends on whom you ask. And on TV, it’s no easier. The controversial “Men on Film” segment of Fox’s In Living Color (1990-94), in which two flaming black queens offered a gay perspective on movies, sharply divided even the gay community. “I used to watch it with my black gay friends and just hoot,” says Donald Suggs, the associate director of the watchdog group Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). “Then one night I watched it in a straight bar. Those people weren’t laughing at it for the same reasons I was.”

The new fall season won’t make it any easier. The pilot script for the Frasier team’s new fall series, The Pursuit of Happiness, about a well-meaning lawyer, has already caused some concern in the industry. In the first episode, a non-stereotypical gay character comes out to his friend. Should be funny, but it’s not. The coming out is shown not as an important step for the gay man but as yet another problem for his straight friend — a punchline in someone else’s bad day.

Conversely, a line punctuated by an antigay epithet in ABC’s pilot of The Naked Truth, about a tabloid photographer (Tea Leoni), is getting some laughs — even from gay viewers. “He said [my cigarette] smoke made the Persian rug stench-ridden and malodorous,” says Leoni, grousing about her former husband. “What a homo.” Leoni’s hilariously petulant delivery seems less an endorsement of bigotry than an expression of seething impatience with her ex. But the line is still a tough call. Some viewers will laugh out of shock that a sophisticated, educated woman says something so politically incorrect. Others will cheer in the same way that racists admired All in the Family‘s Archie Bunker, not realizing that he was designed as a parody of themselves. Who’s right? Who knows?

The revolution has been slower to take hold at movie studios, which all but banned gay characters after the dismal failure of Making Love, the oh-so-serious 1982 drama in which Michael Ontkean left Kate Jackson for Harry Hamlin (actually, audiences shied away from the film because it stank). Still, by the early 1990s, it seemed almost every movie hero or heroine had a lovable gay neighbor–a lovelorn friend in Frankie & Johnny, a flower-toting sissy in The Prince of Tides. But not until 1993 did a major studio, TriStar, release a film hinging on gay characters — Philadelphia, which was criticized within the gay community for playing it safe and never even giving Hanks and his lover Antonio Banderas an on-screen kiss. Didn’t matter. The $197 million it grossed worldwide was the sound of cash registers ringing: The right stars could sell tickets whether they were playing gay or not. (And anyone who believes that playing a gay character can hurt a career should note the recent resumes of Hanks and Banderas.)

Even many recent depictions of gay characters — the pussycat-stroking upstairs neighbor in 1992’s Single White Female, for instance — seem positively Cro-Magnon today, so rapidly are perceptions evolving. In Home for the Holidays, an upcoming family comedy-drama directed by Jodie Foster, Robert Downey Jr. plays a gay character whose life and sexuality are woven realistically and seamlessly into the film. And producers who showcase antigay images in any form, consciously or not, risk facing organized protests. Take Mel Gibson — please. Or so said gay groups earlier this year when the actor-turned-director (who has received flak for publicly expressing his disdain for homosexuals in the past) depicted Braveheart‘s Prince Edward as a rouged-up, mincing queen (a depiction, it should be noted, that might have a basis in historical fact). Audiences laughed and cheered when the king tossed Edward’s male lover out a window to his death — a reaction that upset even the film’s screenwriter, Randall Wallace. “My expectation was that there would be shock,” he says, “certainly not one of people applauding.”

“It’s not that there aren’t plenty of dreadful gay people,” says Rudnick. “But sometimes the straight world doesn’t understand that for a very long time that’s the only way they were portrayed. You can afford plenty of gay villains, as long as there’s some balance.” Rudnick’s Jeffrey, a low-budget independent film based on his 1993 Off Broadway play, is probably an indication of the shape of things to come. It’s drawing long lines in its limited release, and it’s cast with an impressive lot of stars playing a balanced array of gay characters, from Patrick Stewart as a likable (and stereotypically flamboyant) interior decorator to Steven Weber (Wings’ womanizing Brian) as a straitlaced young gay Manhattanite who swears off sex for fear of AIDS.

It is, in fact, the AIDS epidemic that has exponentially increased the visibility of gays in the mass media. As performers like Elton John, Etheridge, and lang came out of the closet, other doors of acceptance opened. MTV viewers wrote hundreds of letters each week to Pedro Zamora, last year’s Real World gay resident, as he wrangled with Puck and battled AIDS. And as coming out became more common, there was a crucial shift in the perception of those inveterate culture consumers, the baby boomers: According to an Entertainment Weekly/Gallup poll, 71% of 30- to 49-year-olds say they count a gay person among their relatives, coworkers, or friends.

“AIDS has given gay life a very serious subtext,” says Rudnick. “It makes it impossible to use gay characters as only comic relief.” And just as it’s impossible to define what is funny (or even politically correct) when incorporating a gay reference into a punchline, it has become impossible to define pop material as gay or straight. For straight audiences are not only embracing gay characters, they’re also laughing at the gay sensibility, which is far less easy to spot than, say, a drag queen. Both Frasier (about a straight man who takes in his retired father) and Roseanne (about a couple trying hard to raise a family while balancing on the poverty line) are among the Nielsen family comedies with substantial crossover appeal to gay audiences — and not just because they have incorporated gay characters. “Frasier is about a father who says, ‘How did I get a son like this?’ and a guy who says, ‘How did I come from a father like this?'” says the show’s cocreator, Lee. “That has a tremendous resonance to a lot of gay people.”

The gay sensibility was born from the plight of the disenfranchised — gay people are aware, as much as anyone, that life according to The Brady Bunch exists nowhere outside a Hollywood soundstage. At its most outrageous, the aesthetic flares into camp — a comedy genre that ridicules with both affection and anger — and is personified by drag queens. But today, camp isn’t simply an in-joke among gay audiences; it has gone mainstream, too. Last spring’s send-up The Brady Bunch Movie (in which a gay teen had a crush on an oblivious Marcia) was a triumph of the new camp, a shiny subversion of mainstream Americana that proved a hit with mainstream Americans. (Last year’s equally campy Ed Wood and its transvestism, however, drew only critical raves — no audiences.)

Of course, camp has always been with us. It’s there, for example, in the encyclopedia of old Hollywood films — Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Call of the Wild, Valley of the Dolls — that make up designer Isaac Mizrahi’s points of reference and inspiration in the new, take-no-prisoners fashion documentary Unzipped. But never before has camp been intentionally manufactured and marketed wholesale, as in Absolutely Fabulous, Comedy Central’s British import with drag-queenish heroines (yes, women can play drag queens too) drinking and cursing and trashing everything that Ralph Reed holds dear. And an American Ab Fab is coming soon, under the guidance of — who else? — Roseanne.

The route from cult success to commercial smash is not an uncommon one. Audiences have been preconditioned for Universal’s glittery American drag road comedy To Wong Foo by last year’s glittery Australian drag road comedy, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. That route, says conservative movie critic Michael Medved, suggests less a cultural revolution than Hollywood business as usual. “Part of this is the tremendous success of Mrs. Doubtfire and The Crying Game,” he says. “People in Hollywood are not tremendously sophisticated when it comes to discerning new trends. You’re talking about as Neanderthal an approach as saying ‘Hey, look, they made $200 million by dressing Robin Williams up as a girl and $100 million by dressing Jaye Davidson up as a girl.’ They saw that drag was exploitable.”

True enough, as far as Hollywood goes. But something more than exploitation is going on in the rest of the country. In an era when Americans, especially young ones, are more taken by the cool detachment of cyberspace than with either political party, their own economic futures, whoever happens to be President, and the entire news media, “independent” or “alternative” anything begins to look a lot more attractive. And the dry, smart outsider mentality represented by much of gay culture seems an interesting stance from which to view the world.

The new popularity of that disenfranchised viewpoint has, in fact, altered the kind of drag we see in To Wong Foo, which, though sanitized, is vastly different from the antiquated version practiced by Flip Wilson and Milton Berle (and by Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire). Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and Patrick Swayze play openly gay men flouncing their feminine side and venting their rage at social norms — not unlike RuPaul. Berle put on dresses simply to mock women — call it a sight gag at best, misogyny at worst. Martin Lawrence, playing his own big-boned female neighbor Sheneneh on Martin, carries on Berle’s tradition, straight drag, if you will.

Even the creation of gay icons among movie stars isn’t what it used to be, now that the rest of the country wants in on it. Gay audiences have always had a soft spot for certain performers — Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, James Dean — but the attraction was an in-joke among these stars’ gay fans, who turned these curious heroes and heroines into almost mythic beings based on their masculine/feminine personas or operatically tragic lives. But the current crop of heterosexual performers hitting it big with gay audiences may not spawn the next generation of dragsters; if they’ve got dual appeal, they get the joke and it’s fine with them. Sharon Stone — a latter-day Joan Crawford — has captured the hearts of gay men by taking roles that cast her as a lethal threat to straight, macho men. (Asked to explain her crossover appeal, Stone shrugs, “In my work, I try to celebrate life without judgment.”) Comedian Jon Stewart’s now-defunct talk show was embraced by gay audiences because, he theorizes, “it sort of had an outsider’s appeal.” Sarah Jessica Parker has publicly expressed her desire to be a homosexual icon, and Mary Stuart Masterson proudly acknowledges her lesbian following.

Based on the results of Entertainment Weekly‘s survey of attitudes toward gay characters and openly gay performers, one thing is clear: The majority of Americans are not condemning this revolution — most don’t even think about it at all. That could change, for recently the wheel has taken at least one wrong turn. The current offender: Calvin Klein, whose homoerotic clothing ads during the last decade have been a powerful influence in eroticizing American culture. In one of Klein’s new TV spots, which feature both young men and women, an unseen male director poses questions to an uncomfortably young and seemingly impressionable male model. On Aug. 28, the ad campaign was hastily withdrawn after a hail of criticism that the advertisements bordered on child pornography. A statement from Calvin Klein, Inc., maintained that the ads’ message was misunderstood. In fact, the problem may have been that the message was understood all too clearly.

“I am generally upset, as a parent and as a critic, with the sexualization of everything,” says Medved, “particularly when it extends to children.” And even outspoken gay journalist Michelangelo Signorile, an early proponent of outing public figures — and long a voice in favor of Klein’s homoerotic imagery — tends toward agreement. “In the new ads, I think he has crossed a line,” says Signorile. “For Calvin Klein to be treating [pedophilia] lightly and almost in a camp way is really reprehensible.”

The ads, of course, are a clear example of how easily distorted the gay world can be when it’s seen through the prism of pop images. The Hollywood axiom that there are no good roles for women, for example, extends to the relatively small number of lesbian films in the gay niche-cinema market, and lesbian TV roles are also few in number. A disproportionately high number of gay men in films are depicted as suffering from AIDS, whereas the issue of coming out to one’s friends and family — a crucial aspect of every gay person’s life — has never been satisfactorily dealt with in movies or on TV. And the sexual side of gay life is still an area that Hollywood tends to treat awkwardly at best; although portrayals of gay men as sexual predators (as in 1980’s Cruising) tend to be a thing of the past, more often than not, contemporary gay characters tend to be neutered, limited to longing looks and chaste kisses. (Then again, pop culture has never reflected straight culture altogether accurately, either.)

But just as negative pop stereotypes of black characters in old Hollywood (Gone With the Wind) gave way to dull black plaster saints in the 1960s (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), and then, finally, more realistic treatment, so will gay characters and themes and punchlines evolve. And the voices opposing this cultural shift — whether political, personal, or just nervous — are being drowned out. Not by the sound of disco, or the roar of drag queens, or the relentless engine that drives Hollywood. But by consumers at Tower Records in Seattle, by moviegoers at cineplexes in Buffalo, by TV viewers in their Amarillo living rooms all of whom are putting their time and their money where their interests lie. Entertainment Weekly‘s poll shows that 63 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, perhaps the most avid purchasers of entertainment, don’t object to seeing a same-sex kiss on screen when they go to the movies, and nearly 18 percent would like to see more gay characters and situations. In short, this revolution is the only kind Hollywood can trust — one driven by the marketplace.

The commercialization of gay culture is probably more than a passing fad — after all, the closer you cut to the heart of consumerism, the more acceptance, if not outright enthusiasm, reveals itself. But even those who think the novelty will eventually wear off may find themselves in a different world when it does. It may well be a more tolerant and compassionate place, at least for one minority. And wouldn’t that be absolutely fabulous?

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