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October 28, 2003

Gay Fatigue

By Byron LaMasters

This was from a couple of weeks ago, but I recently read of Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow's column on his "gay fatigue". Now, I'll start off by saying that I've always liked Steve Blow. In fact, he's one of my favorite Morning News columnists. I've tended to find his columns interesting and insightful. I've emailed him twice, once complimenting him for a well-written column on underage drinking, and once criticizing him for his characterization of anti-war protesters. Both times I received a thoughtful response.

Anyway, Steve Blow wrote that he has gay fatigue:

I think I have "gay fatigue."

Don't worry, it's not catching. But I suspect that many of you have contracted it, too.

Let's talk.

Remember a few years ago when there was lots of talk about "compassion fatigue"? The news confronted us with so many problems, so the theory went, that our ability to feel compassion simply wore out.

If nothing else, it made a nice excuse for indifference.

But to some degree, it also made sense. And that's why I think I'm now suffering from gay fatigue. I'm just feeling kind of overwhelmed.

My moment of self-diagnosis came recently when I was looking through a list of upcoming movies on the Sundance Channel. That's a cable TV channel that shows independent films.

The movie descriptions read something like this:

"... the story of a brooding young lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality in the 1950s."

"... the story of a misunderstood gay teen confronting homosexuality, gangs and poor decorating in Brooklyn."

"... the story of a transgendered Jewish poet's struggle to reconcile love, faith and verse."

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But I sure didn't want to watch.

I know I have a fairly acute case of gay fatigue because I have lost the will to watch Will & Grace.

Jack, who once seemed so funny, now just seems annoying. One less penis joke per episode would probably help.

And this is one straight guy who wouldn't let those Queer Eye guys anywhere near him. I could use their help. I just couldn't stand all their yapping.

Well, Steve, I really have three words for you. Deal with it. I don't mean that in a vindictive way at all, but rather as a reality of life. The fact of the matter is that the gay community (and our allies) are winning the culture war. We've seen media and culture undergo a massive transformation in the past 10-20 years from basically ignoring homosexuality at best and demeaning homosexuals as predators (or characterizing all homosexuals in mostly negative stereotypes) at worst.

Now conservatives out there will say that Steve's right, here - that the media and Hollywood are obsessed with gay themes. Maybe so, but I have another suggestion. Perhaps the media has realized something else. Gay themes sell. People are interested. Why else has Will & Grace become so popular? Or Queer Eye?

Well a couple reasons. One, gay themes are new. A lot of people find them entertaining, and probably most importantly, they sell. As for being new, until the mid-90s gay subjects were largely taboo in television and movies. It wasn't until movies like "Philadelphia" (1993), "The Birdcage" (1996) and "In & Out" (1997) and Ellen DeGeneres' 1997 coming out that gay themes really emerged as "acceptable" and "normal" for television and movies. That reality in the late 1990's of the acceptability to middle America of gay themed movies and television in mainstream media has probably done more for the gay rights movement than anything else in my lifetime. Heck, I remember being in 8th grade when Ellen came out. It was shocking. Her show may have been cancelled, but she led the way for Will & Grace (1998) to Queer as Folk (2001) and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003). Sure, shows like Queer as Folk that show rather explicit gay sex scenes will generate a backlash, but does it really say anything more about gay people than Sex and the City says about straight people? Hardly. Queer Eye is probably one of the best gay themed television shows because (despite perpetuation of some gay stereotypes, although not in a negative way as it shows the gay men as happy, successful and confident) it shows gay men helping straight men improve themselves so that they can become a better father / husband / boyfriend, etc. It really reflects the reality of the 21st century where gays and lesbians have become integrated into mainstream, heterosexual society (a trend that I and most gay people see as a good thing).

Movies have undergone a similar transition in the past decade as well. Philadelphia didn't ruin Tom Hanks' career. Instead, it got him an Oscar. Just as television has been willing to go more daring, so have movies, now willing to tackle transgenered themes "Boys Don't Cry" (1999) and other complex themes, "The Hours" (2003).

For the first three decades of the modern-day gay rights movement (late 60s through late 90s) the average American had little exposure to gays and lesbians. Many Americans saw all gays and lesbians as represented by the most flamboyant and radical elements of gay pride parades on the news. While the gay community scored many political victories, it was only until the late 1990s when the gay community scored a critical cultural / social victory: the normalization of gays and lesbians into popular culture and mass media.

Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today examined the phenomenon this summer:

If you recently caught a movie at the multiplex, clicked on the TV remote or saw a Broadway show, you might have noticed the world looks a lot more gay lately.

And we aren't just talking about happy and carefree.

Suddenly, with little fanfare or fuss, mainstream entertainment has fallen head over heels for gays and lesbians, and the occasional transgender or bisexual counterpart, with an embrace that goes beyond the passing flirtations of the past.

A subject long explored and exploited by niche venues such as independent films, pay cable and off-Broadway, the gay infatuation started to grow more serious about a decade ago. Before the box-office novelty wore off, major Hollywood studios milked homosexuality for obvious laughs and mawkish tears in "The Birdcage," "Philadelphia" and "In & Out." The AIDS-themed stage drama "Angels in America" won a Pulitzer and Ellen DeGeneres came out of her sitcom closet.

That was then.

This, however, is now: Barbara Walters experimentally locks lips with Julianne Moore, emulating her Oscar-nominated role as a sexually confused '50s homemaker in "The Hours." "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest and judge Simon Cowell josh each other with blatant gay banter. Willow the witch (Alyson Hannigan) and her female companion didn't settle for the usual peck on the lips on the third-to-last episode of UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

That's just prime-time TV in the past couple of months.


Gay entertainment is no longer a ponderous check-off list of historical landmarks that elicit protests and piety. It also can be pure, simple fun - like Bravo's new dating show, "Boy Meets Boy," starting in July. The trick: Some of the contestants are straight ringers.

"There's been an enormous change if you compare what's out there with what was out there 15 years ago," observes gay playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick ("In & Out," "Jeffrey"). "Back then, we had no visible gay characters or the ones we did have were used only in angsty docudrama situations to illustrate their sad, lonely lives. Now we are in the era of 'Will & Grace,' and that's been a great leap. To be successful, a movie or show has to appeal to general consumers and everyone wants to watch 'Will & Grace.' I mean, Madonna didn't turn up on 'Everybody Loves Raymond.' "

The attitude shift is a natural progression, says Scott Seomin, entertainment watchdog and spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

"As more and more people come out in this country, the more straight people know a co-worker, a friend or a family member who is gay," Seomin says. "They are going to learn that the gay community is just as human as the straight world. They want to learn more about their lives."

Plus, today's youth - a prime target for advertisers, who also are catering more to well-off and well-educated gay consumers - tend to be more open-minded if not blase about such matters.

" 'X-Men' is based on the exploration of the differences between people," says Lisa Dombrowski, assistant professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn. "Do we celebrate those who are different or fear and attack them? It resonates with any teen since they all feel different."

She adds, "This is a generation that has grown up with more images of gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexuals. The issue isn't one of shock. It's one of why aren't we seeing the entire truth."


- On TV. The popularity of "Will & Grace," about a straight woman and a gay man who are best friends, is long established. Next season, though, ABC goes a step beyond with its new culture-clash sitcom, tentatively titled "It's All Relative." The setup: A woman raised by two liberal gay men is engaged to the son of Irish Catholic conservatives who run a bar.

Executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan say it was network executives who felt the time was right for a sitcom with gay parents.

"This is the first time we've seen gay parenting on network TV with a committed couple," says Zadan of the series written by two "Frasier" alums. "If you look at other shows, the men are barely dating. These two guys have spent a long time raising a child." The final shot in the pilot says it all: A split screen with both sets of parents snuggling in their shared beds.


There are still milestones to be met, but they're noted with toned-down hoopla. A possibility for midseason on ABC is "Mr. and Mr. Nash," about gay interior decorators who solve murders. Think "Hart to Hart" with a killer design sense. Says Cumming, who is one Mr. Nash, "It would be the first time on TV where gay people would be in a show and it wouldn't be about them being gay."

After the success of its male-oriented "Queer as Folk," Showtime will unveil the first lesbian-focused series, "The L-Word," next year.

So there's your answer, Steve. Gay themes sell because more and more people know gay people and are intrigued by them (even if "Boy Meets Boy" (2003) was a flop - anyone else have Reality TV fatigue?). Gay themes play well with younger audiences because, well, younger audiences are much more liberal on gay issues and younger people tend to go to the movies a lot. Finally, gay money has a lot to do with it. Gays and lesbians have been targetted by advertizers in recent years. And campaigns like the Stop Dr. Laura campaign and the campaign to get Michael Savage off of TV prove the seriousness in which advertizers and networks take the buying power of the gay community.

That normalization of gay themes in the media in the past decade has had many effects, and inevitably will lead to something of a backlash even by some people that consider themselves "supporters" of the gay and lesbian community. But the positive effects greatly outweigh the negative effects. Polls show that the majority of people 18-25 support gay marriage by a small majority and almost every other gay rights issue overwhelmingly. Why? Because today young people are growing up in a country with Gay Straight Alliances, with Will & Grace, with gay themed movies, with openly gay and lesbian neighbors and friends and most importantly with an open debate in America about homosexuality. It may make some older folks a little nervous, but so did every other battle for equality before us. The Civil Rights movement, the Women's Equality movement and about every other one made a lot of people nervous. But people got over it. If Steve Blow or anyone else doesn't want to watch Queer Eye, or it makes you nervous.... change the channel. It's not rocket science.

To be fair to Steve, he does support gay rights politically. He's wrote: "So thank goodness for all the progress that has been made in righting wrongs." He followed up several days later writing "Boy am I dumb" as his headline. No shit. By writing that he was tired of all the "gay stuff", he opened himself up to attacks from both the left and the right, perpetuating discussion of an issue that he's tired of. From the gay community, opinion has ranged from agreement to calling Blow a bigot. I'd say that I'm in the middle there. Steve Blow is not a bigot. He's generally pro-gay, but expressed some of his concerns about homosexuality in a somewhat insensitive manner. I'll still read him and respect him, but I'd caution him to think twice before he suggests that there be a "National Please Shut Up Day" again.

Posted by Byron LaMasters at October 28, 2003 05:55 PM | TrackBack


I saw that column in the paper too. At the time, my main thought was, what would happen to this guy if he said he had "Black fatigue". I bet he'd be fired. I understand he may not be a homophobe, but at the same time, there's just some things you should keep to yourself, especially selfish feelings such as his. It's his own damn fault he has "gay fatigue", since as you said he is welcome to change the channel.

I think anyone who is upset over the visibility of gays increasing isn't really on our side to begin with. My retort is we've spent our entire lives with 'straight fatigue', so get over it! ;-)

Posted by: Jason Young at October 28, 2003 07:20 PM
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