Sunday, April 25, 2010


The death of Dixie Carter and the series end of “Ugly Betty” got me thinking about what pop culture phenomena helped shape me in the early years of becoming a gay man. I read an essay on where Tanner Stransky wrote eloquently about how the characters of Marc and Justin on “Ugly Betty” contributed to his feeling safe in coming out. While Marc is not a character to emulate—same for Jack on “Will & Grace”—I can see how the character would inspire. If someone so stereotypically gay could find acceptance in the (fictional) world and by the viewing public, what do I have to be so worried about?

Of course, I began the coming out process in the mid-’80s and gay figures, real or imaginary, were not so easy to find. There were glimmers of inspiration. I was mesmerized by the television airing of “An Early Frost”, not just because it put a face to AIDS but because it portrayed an otherwise healthy, loving gay relationship. I recall feeling most empowered by an ordinary scene with Aidan Quinn’s character and his partner sharing the bathroom getting ready in the morning. Normal. Maybe I wasn’t a freak of society, doomed to Hell. (I was living in Texas at the time.)

A smattering of gay celebrities came out or were outed on account of AIDS: Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Anthony Perkins. However, the fact that they reluctantly or posthumously came out was not inspiring. The message: Take it to your grave. When Greg Louganis later came out, I was proud of his courage, but I found little that I could connect to—the stud diver versus mediocre me.

As far as regular TV characters representing what it was like to be a gay man, the only one I can recall was Jack Tripper pretending to be gay on “Three’s Company”. Over-the-top antics to make us laugh, to show how uncomfortable people like Mr. Roper were around presumed gays. Not inspiring.

Perhaps by default my icons were women. (Perhaps not. Maybe I just relate better to women.) It started long before I came out to anyone. I remember my first week in university as a sixteen year old and a larger than life history professor asking each of us to identify a heroic public figure. I’m sure I disappointed him by failing to name Martin Luther King, Jr. or JFK or Mother Teresa. I was young and, yes, shallow. My world was ruled by entertainment. I really wanted to write down Olivia Newton-John. She owned the part of Sandy! She encouraged me to find my Mellow side. She swam with dolphins. And she had that lovely voice, for speaking and singing.

I may have been young and shallow, but I was astute enough to know that ON-J would send my prof into early retirement. He was extremely charismatic and I didn’t want to send him off in (total) despair. Instead of Olivia, I wrote down Bob Hope. Mr. USO, Mr. Congeniality, Mr. Bridge the Generation Gap. Clearly I was in need of another role model.

Without knowing I was following the gaystream, I looked to disco diva Donna Summer, brassy Bette Midler, and Barbra in her gender concealing role in “Yentl”. It was the closest thing I could find to a gay movie. As a he, she pined for Mandy Patinkin but couldn’t dare reveal him/her-self. While gay characters took the big screen in AIDS-afflicted roles (“Parting Glances”, “Longtime Companion”, “Philadelphia”), there were a few golden nuggets like “Maurice” and “Torch Song Trilogy”. Still, for whatever reason, Bette seemed a less outrageous icon than Harvey Fierstein.

I think the first gay figure who gave me lasting inspiration was Pedro Zamora in 1994 on MTV’s “The Real World”. Yes, he had AIDS, but his bravery went beyond that. He demanded acceptance as a passionate, articulate gay man. He had more courage in one bushy eyebrow than I had in my entire body.

Fast forward to 2010. While it’s sad to see Marc and Justin leave the small screen, “Brothers & Sisters” continues to build somewhat realistic storylines for Kevin and the adorable Scotty. (Alas, I wish they’d do more with Saul’s character, coming out late in life.) A gay brother on the current season of “The Amazing Race” is fully accepted by the other teams. (Unfortunately, the same show features a young woman who repeatedly said “lesbians” with the same disdain I reserve for Pat Buchanan and The Olive Garden.)

Out (or outed) public figures are still hit or miss. Just because you’re gay and famous does not mean you’re a great role model. For every Scott Brisson, there are more than a few Ricky Martins and Perez Hiltons. But the public rainbow is getting larger and more colorful. And that bodes well for gays seeking to step OUT themselves.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


April truly is the time of showers. Last April it was Bea Arthur. And now it’s Dixie Carter. All my icons are dying. Donna Summer and Mary Tyler Moore, take care of yourselves, see your doctors just as a precaution.

Bea and Dixie both starred in sitcoms, portraying strong women who spoke their minds as Maude Findlay and Julia Sugarbaker respectively. I loved their characters for their candor, their sense of justice and a raw compassion that viewers could see through their tough exteriors. “Maude” was a show I had to catch in glimpses. When the show wandered into too controversial territory, my mother would send me to my room, the items (continually) spilling from my closet suddenly requiring urgent attention.

By the mid-’80s, I was on my own and no one could control my channel choices. Bea and I got reacquainted when “The Golden Girls” debuted in 1985. “Designing Women” came along a year later. Both shows were must-see programming for me. When I moved to L.A. and finally came out, I wouldn’t go to the clubs on Saturday nights until I’d had my single slice of cheesecake with Rose, Blanche, Sophia and Dorothy. In truth, Rose was my favorite simply because she was so batty (and, yes, it was a delight to see Betty White shed her Sue Ann Nivens). Still, Dorothy was the rock, the one making sense of the insanity. With all the chaos swirling around my life, Dorothy was the one with whom I most identified—right down to the frumpy dating pariah characterization “gently” perpetuated by Blanche.

I bounced around in trying to decide which of the four original “Designing Women” characters I loved the most. Suzanne Sugarbaker was a younger Blanche right down to the Southern accent, Charlene was Rose and Mary Jo and Dixie Carter’s Julia split the Dorothy duties, with a few traces of Sophia thrown in. (Later, Alice Ghostley’s Bernice added another beloved Rose-like voice.) Much of the credit to the strong characters has to be given to writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, but Dixie Carter brought Julia to life. Julia regularly got on her pulpit, spouting off lengthy rants about justice and decorum. Her character inspired and empowered me. I daresay Julia Sugarbaker even contributed to my going to law school. (Not that I shared that with any of my fellow students! No, I went with the standard answer, citing “L.A. Law”. Everything is a little different in Los Angeles—even law school.)

While in L.A., I was impressionable with my new gay freedom. I remember meeting a very attractive man at Rage in West Hollywood and thinking I’d found my life partner. During our alcohol-infused conversation, I mentioned that I loved “Designing Women”. He did too! I was shocked and devastated when he failed to return my calls after our one-night fling.

I wrote a spec script for “Designing Women”, but I never dared to show it to anyone other than a jealous partner of mine who had recently given up his dream of becoming a television writer. His feedback was muffled. He did redeem himself by calling David Steinberg (a frequent director on the show and for whom he’d previously worked as a personal assistant) and getting us tickets to a taping of the show. By then, Jan Hooks and Judith Ivey were part of the revolving cast, but Dixie Carter was still there. I sat in a prime seat in the studio audience right beside her husband, Hal Holbrook. I did not dare speak to him, but it was obvious he enjoyed watching her perform as much as I did.

In later years, I did check out “Family Law”, strictly because Dixie Carter was in the cast and I was thrilled to see her surface as the wicked Gloria Hodge on “Desperate Housewives”. But Dixie will always be a beloved icon to me for the life and depth she breathed into Julia Sugarbaker.

Gone too soon.