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 www.ew.com 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.
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
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”, “
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.