Gays move from near invisibility toward joining TV's prime-time family OUT OF THE SHADOWS

May 01, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It's going to be a gay May in Television Land.

Tomorrow night, two gay men -- bed-and-breakfast owners Erik and Ron -- will be married with great ceremony on CBS' "Northern Exposure."

Saturday night, a lesbian character, Norma Lear, will come out of the closet to her parents on NBC's "Sisters."

Later in the month, Eric Stoltz will portray a gay man infected with HIV in "Roommates" -- a big-ticket, NBC made-for-TV movie with a cast that includes Charles Durning, Elizabeth Pena and Randy Quaid.

Meanwhile, gay and lesbian characters played by Doug Savant on Fox-TV's "Melrose Place" and Sandra Bernhard on ABC's "Roseanne" will be featured in story lines on those hit shows.

You could attribute the gay and lesbian characters and story lines this month to the March episode of "Roseanne" titled "The Kiss," which featured Roseanne Conner kissing a gay character played by Mariel Hemingway. It was the highest-rated episode of the year for "Roseanne," besting the Grammy telecast in head-to-head competition.

The thinking here is that the networks are cynically imitating what worked for ABC's hit sitcom, and are hyping their May sweeps programming with gay and lesbian characters.

Ratings for "The Kiss" will likely make it easier for gay themes to find their way into future sitcoms and dramas. But "The Kiss" alone does not explain what will be happening in coming days, according to the Hollywood producers, network executives and members of the gay community contacted for this story.

It's more complicated, they say. This appears to be more important than just a passing trend in TV programming; it involves gays and lesbians moving from near-invisibility toward membership in the extended family of prime-time characters. While gay characters are not yet allowed anything close to full-member status, some observers say, it's a start.

"I am encouraged by what I'm seeing," says Donald Suggs, director of public information for the national Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). "There are still lots of problems, but I'm encouraged that the issue [of gay characters] is coming up at all on TV, because the worst thing that can happen to us is to be invisible, which is what we were."

Suggs says critics always look for a big break or change, perhaps unrealistically. "Like the movie 'Philadelphia,' the film that's suddenly supposed to open the floodgates. And I think it doesn't happen like that. I think peoples' perceptions and attitudes change in increments, and that's what's happening here with television."

When it comes to how TV handles minorities and social change, NBC vice president Charisse McGhee agrees about incremental changes.

"Television is forever struggling to keep up with the vastness of society. There was a time when no woman on TV worked outside the home -- literally. They were all in the home. And now there are women lawyers and cops and stuff," says McGhee.

"But it happens case by case," she says. "And, as something becomes more commonplace on TV, whether it's gay characters or issues of race, it's no longer a red-flag issue. . . . You have to look at the people involved and the history of each issue."

The history of gays on network TV is not a pretty one.

Well into the 1970s, the portrayals were overwhelming negative; one of the most infamous involved a 1973 episode of ABC's "Marcus Welby, M.D." titled "The Outrage." It revolved around a male teacher who molested a teen-age boy. In ABC's view in those days, pedophiles and homosexuals were one and the same.

In another Welby episode that year, titled "The Other Martin Loring," America's favorite doctor assured Mr. Loring that as long as he "suppressed" his homosexual tendencies, he'd be a "good husband and father."

The first continuing gay character didn't appear in a network series until 1977, when Billy Crystal played Jodie in ABC's "Soap," a spoof of soap operas.

The National Gay Task Force responded to Jodie with an ad in the New York Times, which said, in part, "We of the National Gay Task Force are particularly angered by a character on 'Soap' who is portrayed as a limp-wristed, simpering boy who wears his mother's clothes, wants a sex change operation and allows everyone to insult him without a word of response."

Things didn't get much better through the 1980s and into the '90s, until the arrival in the last two years of characters like Bernhard's on "Roseanne."

"Outside of a few rare examples, I don't know of any television program that's ever really dealt in any kind of sensitive way with the life of gay people. It's window dressing," says Dr. Lawrence E. Mintz, who teaches popular culture at the University of Maryland College Park.

Suggs says the history of gay representation on prime time "has basically been characters brought in only to illustrate the anxiety that heterosexuals feel about gays and lesbians. You know, everyone's freaking out because someone's gay."

As a result, viewers see gays only in terms of their sexuality, not as a fully rounded people.

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