TV's sexless gay characters: It's time to overcome the "ick factor" and let them have some fun too!

Even people who say they support gay rights would prefer gay characters on-screen to remain sexless -- and harmless

Published April 4, 2015 8:30PM (EDT)

Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in "Modern Family"   (ABC)
Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in "Modern Family" (ABC)

Excerpted from "It's Not Over"

Squeamishness about addressing gay-related subjects is a fact of life in the entertainment industry. In its 2014 Studio Responsibility Index, an annual study of LGBT representations in the previous year’s major Hollywood films, GLAAD reported that, of 102 studio films, only 17 had gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender characters of any kind. Most of these were tangential minor roles or, worse yet, as GLAAD put it, “outright defamatory representations.” The LGBT characters “received only minutes — or even seconds — of screen time, and were often offensive portrayals.” And those fleeting depictions were also remarkably racially homogeneous: “Of the 25 different characters counted (many of whom were onscreen for no more than a few seconds), 19 were white (76%) while only 3 were Black/African American (12%), 2 were Asian/Pacific Islander (8%), and 1 was Latino (4%).”

Although smaller, independent films have focused on gay plotlines since the ’70s and ’80s, when Brokeback Mountain became an unexpected box-office hit in 2007, and after 2008’s Oscar-winning Milk, many thought that, surely, Hollywood had broken a final barrier. But building gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender characters into a film’s central plotline — especially when that involves depicting physical intimacy — is something the industry is still reluctant to do. In 2013 director Steven Soderbergh couldn’t get his biopic about Liberace, Behind the Candelabra, made by any major studio, even with huge stars like Michael Douglas, playing Liberace, and Matt Damon, playing Liberace’s partner Scott Thorson, and a relatively small budget of $5 million.

Soderbergh said he was “stunned,” telling The Wrap that every major studio turned him down. “They said it was too gay. Everybody. This was after Brokeback Mountain . . . it made no sense to us,” he said. But where Brokeback Mountain represented sex between its two cowboy characters as tender and nonthreatening, Behind the Candelabra was proudly garish and up-front in its depictions of gay intimacy — some of it in groups, lots of it in hot tubs. Even though, as characters, Liberace and Thorson were living in the glass closet, the film itself refused to “cover” them. Its main character was gender nonconforming, to be sure. By portraying the older Liberace, the flamboyant queen, meeting and seducing the much younger Thorson, Behind the Candelabra activated the kind of threat — the fear — that Rachel Riskind’s work has uncovered in straight-male response to gender-nonconforming faces.

“Studios were going: ‘We don’t know how to sell it,’” Soderbergh said. “They were scared.” HBO picked up the film, which won several Emmys, perhaps breaking through that fear — and challenging it— but only HBO was willing to take that chance. HBO is notable for its successes with LGBT-themed work, including the series Looking (which is one of few shows to deal even remotely honestly with gay men’s lives today, and which was renewed after its first season) and the groundbreaking 2014 film of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, produced and directed by Ryan Murphy, which reached far beyond a gay viewership and set records for HBO. But these are the rare breakouts that garner massive media attention or win awards. The overall landscape is bleak.

In television, too, we tend to focus on the shows that buck the trend of invisibility or undisguised defamation. Landmark moments — like Laverne Cox’s performance in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, or the Amazon-produced series Transparent — are the exceptions that prove the rule. GLAAD’s 2013 index noted that LGBT representations are less “scarce and regressive” in television than in film, but the group still found the paucity “surprising.” It’s great that we have RuPaul’s Drag Race serving up fabulous entertainment on the niche gay network Logo. And Ryan Murphy’s Glee has been among the few standouts aimed at a wide audience and has done an enormous amount to affirm LGBT young people, depicting openly gay teens expressing physical intimacy and tackling homophobia and bullying. But by and large, LGBT characters on television, when they are represented at all, tend to be offered up in covered forms, with their difference diminished to a note so soft you can barely hear it, especially on network shows. It’s a response to what is often called the “ick factor,” the fear of turning off an audience by challenging its implicit bias. (“Is TV too gay?” one news story on a Fox affiliate asked a few years ago, referring specifically to Glee.) Just as people who find the thought of LGBT relationships uncomfortable may still tell a pollster they support gay rights and equality, they also might not mind the character of the funny gay friend or neighbor who comes in and out on a sitcom or drama. They wouldn’t want to see these characters fired from their jobs or prevented from marrying, but they’d also prefer such characters remain sexless and, thus, harmless. A study published in the American Sociological Review in November 2014, in fact, concluded that though a large majority of respondents said they supported full civil rights for gays and lesbians, they would rather not see same-sex public displays of affection. “Of the heterosexuals interviewed, 95 percent said they approved of a scenario in which a straight couple kissed each other on the cheek in public, but only 55 percent approved of a gay couple doing the same,” Al Jazeera America reported of the study, which surveyed one thousand Americans. “When asked if it were a lesbian couple, 72 percent of straight people approved.” And these results represent those who actually would admit to implicit bias. Rachel Riskind’s research, described in chapter 2, would suggest that a much lower percentage truly would be comfortable with same-sex intimacy. Also reflecting Riskind’s research, this study found that heterosexual men appear to be more threatened than women, with a larger percentage of that population disapproving of public displays of affection among same-sex couples.

Salon writer Daniel D’Addario has pointed out that ABC’s Scandal features “a semi-realistic depiction of a married gay couple,” though their “homosexuality was less important than their love of power.” And he criticizes Modern Family for its depiction of a gay married couple that treats the characters as “vehicles to show how tolerant straight people are.” (BuzzFeed writer Louis Peitzman memorably described Modern Family’s Mitch and Cam, who rarely show intimacy of any kind, as “two gay men who don’t even seem to like each other.”) This is covering. Having a couple on TV who are dads who don’t have sex isn’t enough, not in 2014, if we’re to challenge assumptions and break through implicit bias. “By and large, gay characters are sexless,” Peitzman wrote following a comparative study of portrayals of kissing and sex among characters in opposite-sex and same-sex couples on TV shows. “And when they’re not, their trysts are still more insinuation than anything explicit. It comes down to depictional equality: If the straight couples on a show are making out, the gay couples ought to be able to make out too.”

Gay and transgender characters continue to be deployed as reliable laugh lines on television sitcoms too. (Jokes at the expense of gays are endemic on late-night shows and in stand-up comedy as well, with hardly any repercussions.) CBS’s hit Mike and Molly has been notorious, using the terms shemale and tranny to refer to transgender women, and came under criticism from gay groups in early 2013. The ugly jokes continued. Blogger Sue Kerr laced into the network later that year in a blog essay on Huffington Post, noting how in the first fifteen minutes of a randomly selected episode she counted jab after jab at lesbians, gay men, and transgender women — ten in total.

Transgender people are perhaps the least well served by television representations, as in so many areas. GLAAD studied ten years of transgender depictions in 2013, looking at every major broadcast network and seven cable networks. Most of the depictions were abysmal. Transgender people were slotted into a victim role at least 40% of the time, and were killers or villains at least 21% of the time. Antitrans language and slurs were present in 61% of portrayals. The reality — including the brutal hate crimes and the disproportionate criminalization of transgender people of color — is barely reflected in popular culture.

HIV, meanwhile, is a reality in the lives of both transgender women and gay men, communities in which infection rates hold steady at roughly the same rate per year as they were in the ’90s. Yet HIV and AIDS are treated like yesterday’s drama in films and on television. Dallas Buyers Club (2013) was an important film about the early years of the AIDS epidemic — based on a true story of a straight man with AIDS who organized a club to bring unapproved drugs into the country — and garnered great attention and Academy Awards for its stars, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who played a transgender woman. But while gay and bisexual men and transgender women are the groups most affected by HIV today, accounting for 63% of infections in 2010, HIV is essentially invisible in the lives of gay characters living in films and television shows set in the present day. Right now, gay and bisexual men and transgender women who are HIV positive manage a lifelong illness as well as the stigma attached to it — not to mention, for some, the harsh reality of criminalization laws — and HIV-negative gay men of every generation grapple with and debate prevention methods. Hardly any of this exists in films and television“I think it’s one of the reasons we have the infection rates we do,” AIDS activist Peter Staley told me, pointing to the complacency that invisibility in both the media and popular culture helps fuel. “I think it is interrelated to all these victories and this depiction of who we are as a community and how [gay life is] more mainstream now [with] families and kids and marriage and fighting in the military. HIV is in such conflict with all those story lines. In a sense it threatens all those story lines.”

In other words, dealing with the realities of HIV doesn’t gel with the victory narrative. Speaking about it and portraying it means frankly dealing with sex, which simply isn’t possible in covered portrayals of gay lives.

 Hollywood’s “Gatekeepers” Still Rule

With so much animus against LGBT characters and so much fear among studio executives about their marketability, it’s no surprise that the closet is still the law in Hollywood. A few years ago, Todd Holland, an openly gay television director who’s won three Emmys, said he counsels actors who are gay and male to stay in the closet. After his words caused a stir, he wrote a piece in which he clarified, saying that if you’re in “that fractional .002 percent of the young male actor population, and you really have the goods to become a true leading man . . . I can’t tell you to come out.” He pointed to the “gatekeepers” who “abound at every level,” from agents to casting directors and others in the industry, who tell actors to stay closeted.

In a 2012 survey of a set of Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists members conducted by UCLA’s Williams Institute and which received some media attention in 2014, more than half of LGBT actors who responded believed directors and producers are biased against LGBT performers in hiring, and more than half also reported hearing anti-LGBT comments on set. Only 36% of lesbian and gay respondents were out to their agents. And only 13% of lesbian and gay actors and 2% of bisexual actors were open to industry executives.

This is true even though in recent years, directors, casting agents, producers, and even studio executives, from Disney to DreamWorks, have come out of the closet themselves. The very people running the television and film industry include openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Yet these creators, too, often complain that they can’t get LGBT-themed projects made and that invisibility, covering, and the closet prevail. It’s an industry in which a young Welsh actor named Luke Evans actually went back into the closet. When he was an actor on the London stage, Evans quite matter-of-factly told The Advocate in 2002 that he was a “gay man,” but when years later it came time to embark on a Hollywood action-hero career, he was suddenly romantically linked to a woman, briefly, and his agent told The Backlot in 2011 that he would “not comment” on Evans’s sexual orientation and that Evans had “learned not to engage the press in his personal life.” In October 2014, Evans came out again, delicately, in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily.

Evans is one of a small, brave group of people in the entertainment industry who are coming out more than ever before, even if, for many of them, it means accepting a more limited career. A handful of younger actresses, including Anna Paquin and Megan Fox, have publicly self-identified as bisexual. Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell are perhaps daytime TV’s most famous lesbians. And there are Cynthia Nixon, who is married to a woman, and Portia de Rossi, who is married to DeGeneres. Openly gay Neil Patrick Harris starred on a TV sitcom and on Broadway, as has Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family. Matt Bomer, a star of White Collar and Murphy’s The Normal Heart, came out without fuss and became a heartthrob of gay men. Comedian Wanda Sykes is one of a small number of African American LGBT celebrities to have come out. Some young actors, like Zachary Quinto and Jonathan Groff, are pursuing their careers as out gay men, carving out a place for themselves in the entertainment business. And of course there’s Laverne Cox, who has broken barriers as a transgender actress playing a transgender woman.

There’s hope among younger people who are refusing to play along with passing or covering. Ellen Page, nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the 2007 film Juno, came out as a lesbian in 2014, during a speech in which she decried the pressures of “an industry that places crushing standards on all of us.” “You have ideas planted in your head — thoughts you never had before — that tell you how you have to act, how you have to dress, and who you have to be,” she said. “And I’ve been trying to push back to be authentic and follow my heart, but it can be hard.”

Page told a story that underscored the pressure within the industry to follow strict norms on both sexual orientation and gender identity. She said she’d happened to see an article on a website that mocked her for wearing baggy clothes, calling her a “petite beauty” who insisted on “dressing like a massive man.” “There are pervasive stereotypes about masculinity and femininity that define how we’re all supposed to act, dress, and speak, and they serve no one,” she said. “Anyone who defies these so-called ‘norms’ becomes worthy of comment and scrutiny, and the LGBT community knows this all too well.” Page’s speech is a sharp challenge to victory-narrative thinking, reminding us that even in the entertainment industry, a piece of our culture often pegged as a left-wing bastion, public figures still experience a crushing pressure to pass as straight.

Coming out is one part of the story; covering is another. Maybe we’ll see more of a push to stop covering in depictions, at least on television. In the fall of 2014, ABC debuted How to Get Away with Murder, starring Viola Davis; it’s the newest show from prolific producer Shonda Rhimes (of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal), and the show features a gay main character who, like many heterosexuals in TV dramas, enjoys lots of physical intimacy and passionate sex (of course, with other men), such as we’ve never seen before on any network program. Peter Norwalk, who is a co–executive producer on Scandal, created the new show. He told Variety that this character was important for him as a gay man, and he told E! Online that he knew he wanted to “push the envelope” on the gay sex “to right the wrong of all of the straight sex that you see on TV.” “I didn’t see that growing up,” he said, and then alluded to what may be an antidote to the discomfited reactions that greeted Michael Sam’s kiss. “I feel like the more people get used to two men kissing, the less weird it will be for people. I just feel like it’s a lack of vision that you don’t see it on TV.”

Excerpted from "It's Not Over" by Michelangelo Signorile, to be published on April 7, 2015, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2015 by Michelangelo Signorile. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

By Michelangelo Signorile

Michelangelo Signorile is the best-selling author of "Queer in America." He hosts Sirius XM Radio’s "The Michelangelo Signorile Show" and is an editor-at-large for Huffington Post Gay Voices. An award-winning journalist, Signorile has written for dozens of publications, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, Salon and the Village Voice.

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