Gay on TV: It’s All in the Family

On “Glee” this spring, a transgender character named Unique is competing in a sing-off. On “Grey’s Anatomy,” Arizona and Callie are adjusting to married life, having been pronounced “wife and wife” last year.

On “Modern Family,” the nation’s most popular television show, Cameron and his partner Mitchell are trying to adopt a second child.

What’s missing? The outrage.

The cultural battlefield of television has changed markedly since the 1990s, when conservative groups and religious figures objected to Ellen DeGeneres coming out and “Will & Grace” coming on.

Today, it’s rare to hear a complaint about shows like “Modern Family” or the drama “Smash,” which has five openly gay characters, or the sitcom “Happy Endings,” which, against stereotype, has a husky and lazy gay male character.

To the contrary. Mitt Romney is known to be a fan of “Modern Family,” and a Catholic group gave it a media award this month.

Next week in New York the major networks will announce a slate of new shows, including a sitcom on NBC that features a gay couple and their surrogate. The title: “The New Normal.”

At a time when gay rights are re-emerging as an election year issue — in part because of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s stated support for gay marriage on Sunday — activists and academics say that depictions of gay characters on television play a big role in making viewers more comfortable with their gay, lesbian and transgender neighbors.

“TV and movie representation matters,” said Edward Schiappa, a professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota. In five separate studies, Mr. Schiappa and his colleagues have found that the presence of gay characters on television programs decreases prejudices among viewers of the programs. “These attitude changes are not huge — they don’t change bigots into saints. But they can snowball,” Mr. Schiappa said.

Mr. Biden apparently agrees. He said on Sunday that “Will & Grace,” which ran from 1998 to 2006, “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”

When that sitcom began on NBC, it was seen as controversial. Several conservative groups claimed that it and shows like it would make homosexuality seem desirable.

Some groups said the same about “Ellen,” the ABC sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneres, who came out as a lesbian on the show and in real life in 1997. Ms. DeGeneres threatened to quit a year later when ABC preceded an “Ellen” episode that showed her jokingly kissing a friend with a message that warned, “Due to adult content, parental discretion is advised.”

That warning would not appear today, as complaints about gay characters on shows like “Modern Family” and “Glee” barely ever bubble to the surface.

When a group called One Million Moms tried to have Ms. DeGeneres fired this year by J.C. Penney, which had hired her to star in TV commercials, the company’s chief executive defended her and the group gave up. When the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly briefly made a fuss about the Unique character on “Glee” last month, criticizing the show for “shock value,” his comments gained little notice. (“Glee” is broadcast on Fox, whose parent company, News Corporation, also owns Fox News).

Still, when one of Mr. O’Reilly’s guests complained last fall when Chaz Bono became the first openly transgender contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” Mr. O’Reilly supported Mr. Bono, who lasted six weeks on the show. Upon being voted off, he said he had participated in part because if there had been “somebody like me on TV when I was growing up, my whole life would have been different.”

Perhaps wary of being perceived as moralizing, producers and writers in Hollywood — a predominately liberal town — say that the viewer support of gay, lesbian and transgender characters is just a happy byproduct of their storytelling.

“I think I would be lying if I said that I didn’t expect, at some point, for some narrow-minded group of people to try to create some publicity” around “Glee” or “Modern Family,” said Dana Walden, the chairwoman of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces both shows. “The bottom line is that people embrace these characters completely.”

Steven Levitan, a co-creator of “Modern Family,” said he thought that when the show started, the inclusion of Cameron and Mitchell would “limit our success a bit, because it will perhaps alienate a certain segment of the population.”

“In fact,” he said, “it’s turned out to be quite the opposite,” a point he reiterated last fall when the series won its second Emmy Award for best comedy.

Media watchdogs like the Parents Television Council, one of the most active conservative media groups, do occasionally speak out against TV programming; but a spokeswoman for the council said it did not distinguish between gay and straight content.

Of the shows with gay plot lines, “Glee” has been the most scrutinized: Dan Gainor, a representative of another prominent group, the Media Research Center, said it “merely pretends to be a show for young people” while actually serving as an “assault on traditional values and morality.” His group, though, focuses more on purported liberal bias in the news media than on prime-time programming.

While campaigns against shows with gay characters are now rare, the pressure on networks to include them has grown. There was a fan outcry, for example, when the gay couple on “Modern Family” did not kiss in the sitcom’s first season. The producers insisted that the wait was intentional, and the second season included a story line about Mitchell’s disdain for public displays of affection, as well as many kisses between the characters.

In an interview Mr. Levitan, who used to be an anchorman in Madison, Wis., cited a newsroom saying: “Don’t tell me how this law is affecting two million people, show me one family that it’s affecting and it’ll be more powerful.”

“I have to think that it’s the same case here,” he said.

Some producers say they have marveled at how fast the opinions of television viewers have changed, even as gay rights activists have marveled at how voters across the country have shifted on gay marriage.

“What this is about, really, is how far America has come, not how far television has come,” said Christopher Lloyd, a co-creator of “Modern Family.”

Shonda Rhimes, the “Grey’s Anatomy” producer, recalled having to “go to the mattresses with broadcast standards and practices” at ABC in 2006 to insist on preserving a steamy shower sequence with three female doctors. That sequence was just a fantasy in the mind of one of the male characters — but now six years later, in the show’s version of reality, two female doctors are married. “Nobody even blinked” at the relationship, Ms. Rhimes said.

The only outcry she recalled came when one of the doctors, Arizona, flirted with a man. “It was from lesbians who said, ‘How dare she sleep with a man!’ ”

by Brian Stelter
Source – The New York Times