Hello, Goodbye to Gay TV Landmarks
|by Damon Romine|
|It's been a queer summer. And I mean that in a good way.
MTV Networks made history in June with the launch of Logo, the first basic cable channel specifically for a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) audience. Logo joins pay channels here! and Q Television, which both went to round-the-clock GLBT programming last year.
Also this summer, we've been treated to new seasons of Showtime's Queer as Folk and HBO's Six Feet Under. They are, sadly, the final episodes as each comes to an end this month.
The tremendous hours of new programs on the gay cable networks may help fill the void left by the departures of QAF and SFU, but it won't make saying goodbye any easier. In their own ways, each show was historic television, holding up a mirror which allowed gays and lesbians to REALLY see ourselves on TV.
Since its premiere in 2000, QAF has been an unabashed and unashamed depiction of relationships amongst a group of Pittsburgh friends. The show presented their world with an honesty and candor never before seen on television.
With QAF, executive producers Ron Cowen and Dan Lipmanpartners both personally and professionally for over 25 years (An Early Frost, Sisters)not only brought the word "queer" back into vogue, but gave us a series wherein gays and lesbians are multi-dimensional characters who work, love, create families, and have sex. This was a series where gay characters were not relegated to the role of wisecracking neighbor or supportive best friend.
An unflinching slice of gay life, the show never purported to represent our entire community, but QAF still polarized the very audience it portrayed. Some viewers loved the show's soap opera-like elements. Some hated the fact that at times drugs and promiscuous sex seemed glamorized. Many appreciated the fact the show included lesbian characters. And others argued the series belied its Pittsburgh locale with an all-white cast.
Love it or hate it, the show has evolved over five seasons to provide something for almost everyone. The freewheeling bedroom antics remain intact, but the characters have grown and faced many complex issues affecting our community: relationships, commitment, discrimination, hate crimes, adoption, custody battles, HIV, drug addiction, and death, to name a few. Heading into the finale, the characters find themselves embroiled in the debate over marriage equality as they lobby against an anti-gay referendum.
After QAF's somewhat shocking debutaudiences had never seen depictions of sex between men on series television beforea new drama the following year about life and death seemed almost tame by comparison. But Six Feet Under was groundbreaking in its own right. Created by Alan Ball (American Beauty) in 2001, the show at its core is a family drama where two of the main characters happen to be gay.
People tuned in to watch a series that broke convention and took them on a journey with quirky and engrossing stories. The saga about the funeral-home-owning Fisher family includes gay son David and his African-American partner Keiththree-dimensional characters who showcase the complexity and diversity of our community.
Every member of the Fisher clan has experienced romantic upheavals, but David and Keith have sustained a long-term relationship that is neither stereotypical nor perfect. The couple has dealt with real issues like religion, race, monogamy, and violence. As the final episodes unfold, David and Keith are focused on having a family of their own, having spent this season looking at options such as surrogacy, foster care, and adoption.
Anyone who questions the importance of having complex, textured characters like David and Keith on a successful show only has to look at a recent study out of the University of Minnesota.
Researchers measured the attitudes of 150 students about gay men. After the students watched ten episodes of SFU and were tested again, there was a statistically significant reduction in their reported prejudice. That's the power of television in changing hearts and minds.
QAF will go down in history as TV's first gay drama that pushed through barriers and broke new ground. SFU will forever be an example of an ensemble show that successfully integrated our stories, depicting the diversity of our community and the value of our families. For many different reasons we're grateful to have had them as part of our lives. (Dare we dream of the reunion movies a decade from now: Queer as Old Folk and Really Six Feet Under?)
Long after they are gone, the influence of these two shows will continue. Would the triumvirate of Logo, here! and Q Television even exist without the success of these shows? Would Bravo's Queer Eye or Showtime's The L Word? Probably not.
It's been an amazing five years when it comes to the progress we've made on cable television, while our portrayals on the broadcast networks have declined over the same period of time. With the end of QAF and SFU, and the series finale of Will and Grace on NBC in May, a huge void will be left when it comes to GLBT images on mainstream TV.
The magic of television is its power to offer a broad audience a glimpse of our lives, and show everyone that GLBT people have many of the same hopes and dreams (and hormones) as straight people. When our stories are not told, the implicit message is that our stories are not worth telling. But Queer as Folk and Six Feet Under have shown that our stories are interesting, engrossing and capable of transforming the way people see us.
The recent setbacks we've suffered in our quest for equality make it clear: we cannot take our visibility for granted. Having three niche networks devoted to us is a major leap forward, but the other cable and broadcast networks must continue to step up to the plate and share our stories.
And we, in turn, need to support those shows whose commitment to inclusion is expanding acceptance and understanding of us in the larger culture.
Damon Romine is the Entertainment Media Director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 11 August 12, 2005