Does Television's Gay Influx Promote Stereotypes?

Even if you've never seen Glee, the Fox dramedy with show tunes in its veins and opera in its nervous system, you probably know that it's TV's gayest product since Richard Simmons. Last week's episode centered on a singing contest of "Defying Gravity," the anticonformity anthem from Wicked, every tween girl's favorite musical. The contestants: Rachel the glee-club diva vs. Kurt the, um—what's the male version of diva? Kurt (Chris Colfer) wears fluffy Alexander McQueen sweaters and sings notes high enough to make your fillings hurt. He can belt Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" and thrust his hips better than Ms. Knowles herself. Yet he can also melt your heart with his fortitude and frankness, especially during his fraught talks with his dad, a mechanic who still remembers when his son wore high heels—as a toddler. That's the thing about Kurt: he can be endearing, but he's also confusing. In one episode, the glee club split into a boys' team and a girls' team. Guess which side Kurt went for? If Kurt were transgendered, all that would make perfect sense, but he's not. Instead, he's that oldest of clichés: the sensitive gay boy who really wants to be a girl. (Article continued below...)

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Really. If the gay community has stood for anything in the 40 years since Stonewall, it's the freedom not just to love who you want but to be who you are: we're here, we're queer, get used to it. For a while, TV got with the program. In 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom, she paved the way for gay characters of every stripe. The next year, Dawson’s Creek introduced a studly jock named Jack (Kerr Smith), who became perhaps the first teen to come out in prime time. TV's other Jack (Sean Hayes), from Will & Grace, swung the more flamboyant way, while lawyerly Will (Eric McCormack) could have been just another "Friend." Over time, the image of gay people on TV became less lavender and more gray—as multifaceted as the five men on Queer Eye for the Straight Guyor the ladies of The L Word. By bringing all these diverse folks into America's living rooms, TV helped bring gays into the mainstream. A survey by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that of the people who say their feelings toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable in the past five years, about one third credited that in part to characters they saw on TV.

In the past year, however, the public-acceptance pendulum seems to have shifted back, at least for what is arguably the biggest test of equality. Two weeks ago, the people of Maine followed the people of California in reversing existing laws that had legalized gay marriage. In fact, when gay marriage has been put before the voters of any state, it has failed every time. Is TV to blame for this? Of course not. The mission of popular culture is to entertain, not to lecture. But if we accept that Will, Dawson's, and the rest once fostered acceptance, it's fair to ask if Gleemay be hurting it, especially because the Kurt model is everywhere. There's Marc (Michael Urie), the flaming fashion assistant on Ugly Betty; Lloyd (Rex Lee), Ari's sassy receptionist on Entourage; the gay couple on Modern Family (one guy still pines for his ice-skating career; the other wears purple in every episode). The fey way extends to nonfiction, too, from the dozens of squealing contestants on Project Runwayto the two gayest words in the English language: Perez Hilton. Next week American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert's new album, For Your Entertainment, arrives: that's Lambert on the cover, wearing heavy mascara, black nail polish, and perfect lip gloss. Lesbians face a different problem. They are invariably played by gorgeous, curvy women straight out of a straight man's fantasy—Olivia Wilde on House, Sara Ramirez on Grey’s Anatomy, Evan Rachel Wood on True Blood—and they're usually bisexual. How convenient.

Minority groups have long struggled to balance assimilation and extinction, self-expression and alienation. Some African-Americans are complaining that the poor, uneducated girl in Precious perpetuates stereotypes; others say she represents a part of the community and deserves to be celebrated. For gays, that schism falls along generational lines. Older gays who spent their lives fighting for civil rights continue to want to stand out, to argue that acceptance means nothing if it doesn't apply to the most outré members. Younger men and women, for whom society has been more tolerant, think of themselves as "post-gay," meaning their sexual orientation is only a part of who they are. Last month, gay groups held a march on Washington for marriage. The older folks gave speeches. The younger ones seemed more interested in snapping a Facebook picture of Lady Gaga. (Article continued below...)

The problem with the Glee club is that Kurt and the rest are loud and proud, but their generation has turned down the volume. All this at a time when standing apart seems particularly counterproductive. Marriage (and the military) are sacred institutions, so it's not surprising that some heterosexuals will defend them against what they see as a radical alteration. But if you want to be invited to someone else's party, sometimes you have to dress the part. Is that a form of appeasement? Maybe. It's not that gay men and women should pretend to be straight, or file down all their fabulously spiky edges. But even Rachel Maddow wears lipstick on TV. The key is balance. There's so much more to the gay community than the people on TV (or at a gay-pride parade). We just want a chance to live and love like everybody else. Unfortunately, at the rate we're going, we won't get there until the post-post-gay generation.

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