Diverse Voices: Gay Programming Is About More Than Sex

May 4, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Sex sells. It sells advertising, reality TV and scripted shows; some would even say it sells gay programming. But what is gay programming?
Gay- and lesbian-themed shows on cable networks like Logo, here!, Showtime, HBO or Bravo run the gamut from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” to “The L Word.” Seeing gay characters on broadcast network shows such as “Brothers & Sisters,” “Ugly Betty” or “Desperate Housewives” is not unusual.
Gay and lesbian advocates say increasing the number and depth of gay characters on scripted shows, and featuring more gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people on reality shows is needed.
“I’m fighting the gay culture war on the media front,” says Paul Colichman, CEO and co-founder of here!, which targets a gay audience. “I want those kids who are 13 and 14 now, born part of our community, to have a cornucopia of images that empower them and allow them to fully embrace their lives. I believe the most effective way to affect diversity is through media images. It’s more effective than politics and dialogue. Put positive images in the world, and it will become so.”
Colichman points to the culture of racism and xenophobia that dominated the country at the turn of the 20th century, noting how New York City was divided by gangs. One group responsible for changing that culture, he says, was the Eastern European Jewish moguls who created images of people living together amicably in the movies.
“It was an idealized view of their new country, and they defined American values,” Colichman says. “You put the imagery out there of a kind, caring, accepting United States, and you’ll create a kind, caring and accepting United States. That’s how you take it from rhetoric to reality.”
Getting positive images of gays and lesbians on the air depends on the willingness of TV executives to stand up for such shows. I found it interesting that several network executives at the vice president level who were approached about this column declined to be interviewed.
The only lesbian executive who agreed to talk on the record was Lisa Sherman, executive VP and general manager of Logo.
Sherman, who held a number of senior-level marketing, advertising and operating positions at Verizon for the first 17 years of her career, says she never felt comfortable coming out at work because it didn’t feel safe.
“In the mid-’90s, diversity was the hot topic, but I remember one diversity training exercise where people went around the room, writing comments on easels about various groups of people,” Sherman says. “When it came to gays, people wrote that gays are immoral, spread disease and are sick. It was traumatic, knowing the comments were written by people I worked with every day.”
When Sherman left the company, she sat down with then-CEO Ray Smith and told him what it was like being a gay employee for Verizon. As a result, the company changed its policies to support domestic-partnership benefits. Sherman says she believes gay programming can influence the course of national policy in the same way.
“We were the first to put on a debate that speaks to a gay audience during a presidential election,” Sherman says. “None of the Republicans accepted our invitation, but six of the Democrats did. We streamed it online, so people who didn’t have the opportunity to get Logo could see it.”
As with any issue, perspectives differ, depending on who’s looking at the picture. For Jenn Levy, director of development and production at Bravo, being a lesbian has never been a problem at the two networks she’s worked for—MTV and Bravo. Levy says corporate cultures at both places embrace diversity as a business imperative.
If anything, she says, there are more gay men in Hollywood than lesbians, and some lesbians are caught in the middle.
“People talk about the gay mafia,” Levy says. “In social settings, gay men are a tight clique. Some lesbians would agree that you’re not a straight female, and you’re not a gay man, so you’re not necessarily welcomed into that group of gay men. In Hollywood, gays are more celebrated and accepted than people of color. You don’t face the same stereotypes.”
Out of curiosity, I asked one my best friends, who’s a gay man, for his perspective on gay programming.
“In today’s world, each demographic wants to see someone that looks and acts like them,” says Scott Marshall, who with his partner adopted a daughter who’s now 15 months old. “Gay programming is showing regular ‘gay people’ in regular settings. Basically the only difference between a gay relationship and a straight one is gays don’t argue about the toilet seat being up.
“If I didn’t have a child around the house, and wasn’t constantly tired, I could actually stay up and watch TV more. But after one season, if a show’s plot, acting and more than just sex didn’t come about, then I simply wouldn’t be in its audience. With a child, husband and all the rest, ‘Doodlebops’ and ‘Torchwood’ are much more my speed of life.”
We are in agreement there—BBC America’s “Torchwood” is a great example of programming where the lead character, played by gay actor John Barrowman, is an equal-opportunity Lothario, and the show has interesting gay and straight storylines interwoven.
It’s not about sex, but Barrowman is definitely hot.
Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelancer who writes a syndicated column for Gannett News Service.

Your Comment

Email (will not be published)