Once Upon a Pride

June has been dubbed Gay Pride Month and you know what that means. 

Woo!

Well, okay, it means many things.

But among them is the launch of and spotlight on anything having to do with the LGBTQ community, a 30-day period where we are discussed, referenced, represented and respected. 

Okay, mostly respected, because there will always be haters of any marginalized group.  This is true even in the case of women, who happen to be in the majority of the U.S. population (Note: 50.52% to 49.48%).

And yet here we are again

Nevertheless, power is not always a numbers game.  That is why any number of us groups of people who consistently get picked on, nee marginalized, many of which I find myself a member of (Note: Gays, Jews, nerds, height challenged and old(er) among them) have had to get loud, annoying, crafty and smart in order to survive.

But let’s stay with the gay of it all.

Or shall I say queer?  Or LGBTQ plus, plus, plus.

Who can keep up?

which brings us to…

A new film from Fox Searchlight opened/dropped on Hulu this Friday called Fire Island, a romcom with a handful of very, very, VERY light dramatic undertones.  It stars two gay Asian men and has a multi-ethnic mostly LGBTQ+++ cast playing friends and frenemies experiencing a week of fun, frolic and life lessons at one of the most renowned gay vacation spots on the planet.

It’s niche but it’s not, not really.  There are now dozens of movies, TV shows and limited/streaming series with LGBTQ characters of every sort and, in the last few decades, we’ve gone from being the comic relief and/or supportive friend to full blown leads.

Take this absolutely adorable example

It’s far from perfect but what is progress anyway if not a two steps forward, one step back proposition?  I mean, there was a time not so long ago where many in the U.S. figured that once a Black man was elected U.S. president and served in the White House for eight years that the country would…

Oh, never mind.

It will surprise no one my age and likely everyone under 30 years old to know that when I was a boy growing up in the late sixties there were ZERO gay characters on TV series.

Here’s whom we had:

– Actor Paul Lynde, the center square on the game show The Hollywood Squares (1966).  A saber-tongued wit that was so quick, cunning and cutting that no one in their right (or wrong) mind would f-ck with him.

He’d also pop up on Bewitched as our favorite Uncle Arthur

– Nancy Kulp, an actress who played the smart and long-suffering character of MISS Jane Hathaway, the real brains of her banker boss on the half-hour comedy The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)and…

And let’s not forget her turn in Haley Mills’ Parent Trap!

Charles Nelson Reilly, the famed actor-director who was a series regular on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968).  He played Claymore Gregg, the wacky yet caring great nephew of the ghost that haunts the seaside cottage he rents to the lovely yet classy widow Mrs. Muir and her two extremely adorable kids.

Lest we forget his legendary run on Match Game

Mr. Lynde, Ms. Kulp and Mr. Reilly were all gay in real life and it is a testament to their honesty, talents and personalities that they created people and personas that let us know they were fun and, ahem, different at a time when you could never openly say you were, ahem, different, to the masses.

Certainly, you couldn’t do it openly or even directly.  Yet somehow I knew and, as I would find out over the years, so did every other gay friend and acquaintance, as well as some very savvy straight ones. 

What they were telling us was that even if you weren’t like everyone else at least you could be…entertaining!  And intelligent, gainfully employed AND enjoy your life.

And be fabulous!

If that doesn’t seem like enough, and it certainly wasn’t, it was still A LOT back then.

Even as a pre-adolescent who didn’t yet have a name for what I suspected I was, I figured if being the smartest person in the room, the center square or the landlord was the best that could happen, well, that’d at least be something – and worth surviving for.

Even now I feel humbled for having learned that lesson and pride to have lived, persevered and thrived to heights I never could have imagined at that time.

… and can laugh about it!

Decades and decades of TV and movies and streaming shows (Note: The latter being the true hybrid of the aforementioned two) have since followed to the point where now being LGBTQ is no longer coded, often embraced and almost always integrated into the whole of whom those people are that we are watching.  And in those moments that it isn’t, it is, these days, almost always done for dramatic effect, not because LGBTQ+++ creators can’t or won’t do it for fear of mass career and/or pop culture reprisal.

It is difficult at this moment to come up with a single network or studio that at some point has not released some content with an openly LGBTQ plus character.  (Note: Ahem, even the conservative skewing Hallmark Channel?!)  Also, a coming out journey is no longer the required centerpiece of how each of them are presented (Note: Not that there’s anything wrong with that, either).

See: Ava on Hacks (watch season 2 now!)

A faux naughty romp fest like this week’s Fire Island might not be the gold standard for LGBTQ plus content, but it doesn’t have to be anymore.  It can simply exist as a diversion, or a dislike, or a meh or even a niche only love and not ruin the chances for every proposed project with gay content that comes after it. 

Progress?  I’d say so, as well as in one other way.

Fire Island is not even so much about being gay but rather about class, as well as a touch about race. The drugs and the sex it features might still seem a bit far out for some but in a strange way the film also never goes far enough in what it seems to really be trying to say.

It can just be fun.. you know?

That for many city gays, and others, it is not so much being LGBTQ anymore but existing in a community that marginalizes you by class, or the color of your skin, or your looks or your view of sex, romance and commitment.

The issues and challenges in most every other subset of a community, or in the entire community itself. 

We struggled for acceptance and representation and to some extent we gays are now in the process of having it onscreen.  We get to be shown, both rightly and wrongly, as pretty much every other niche group rather than being the love (or the person) that dare not speak its name.

What we need to do now is figure out a way to bridge the gap in real life.

and continue the fight

To continue to be our smart, entertaining and cutting edge selves.  But to also open up our bank accounts a bit more and to once again take to the streets when it’s necessary.  And it is.

A new movie or TV show alone isn’t going to help openly transgender high school athletes in Ohio and Florida who might be banned from playing for their teams or the gay teachers in red states across the country once again being branded as immoral threats to the children they teach who nevertheless adore them. 

To merely be seen these days is not enough.  Not nearly.

Muna – “Sometimes” (from Fire Island)

Topical Storm

Earthquakes and hurricanes are not the only natural disasters looming in the zeitgeist.  Television viewers are about to face a topical storm in the new fall TV season.

Have YOU been downsized, fired, 401K bankrupted or Madoff-ed?  Or maybe it’s merely families and friends reeling from the economic downturn?   Then have no fear – you’re represented in, oh, 75% of the 12 pilots I’ve screened in the VERY unscientific study I’ve done of the new TV season.  In these fictional/faux true series (both comedy and drama) the premise of the new show is the one time rich (or at least economically functioning) family or child or adult must start over because either a) they b. their ex-husband or c. another family member was rendered broke by the arms of a crumbling economy (guess which one?) or perhaps by some shady nameless or familiar business partner or acquaintance who ran off, misused or unwisely invested their life savings — leaving them virtually penniless, unemployable or just generally pathetic but plucky.  This, of course, allows them to be the fodder for, or spewer of, unlimited drama and/or jokes.

And speaking of laughs, are you looking for a new PHRASE or WORD in the zeitgeist this season because you are tired of “…really?,” or “no worries…” or “…it’s all good.” (Note:  if it’s ALL good, does that mean it’s never bad?  Really?)  The networks are hoping so.  Because in, oh, 90% of the half-hour comedy pilots I saw there is a new phrase/catchword of the next fall season.  And that word is – drum roll – vagina.

Yes, vagina.  Is that a funny word or a funny topic?  Or both?  I think only a woman is allowed to have an opinion on that – and even then, it needs to be considered in the context of who said it.  Playwright/activist Eve Ensler, a very talented woman, made a huge cultural impact and paved the way for our ease with the word with her play, “The Vagina Monologues” back in 1996 and it has been performed all over the world and then some.  But that was sooo 1996, ‘97 and ’98. And God knows one or two people have used and made light of the word before and since.  Question:  Since it’s been 15 years since “V.M,” is that the length of time to takes for something to get into network television zeitgeist?  Well, perhaps that’s pretty quick. Gay men were around at least since the beginning of TV, if not earlier, until one of them (us) starred in their (our?) own sitcom called “Will and Grace” in 1998.  And I am pretty sure African American people were around even longer, which I guess is why network TV allowed them to finally have their own sitcom, “Julia,” starring the talented and quite beautiful Diahann Carroll in 1968.

The same can be said of Margaret Cho, before her threatening tattoos, who changed it for Koreans with her show in 1994.  And so on….

THE POINT IS – something is no longer topical 10 or more years after it first happens.  Or is it?  Well, it depends in what sort of culturally elite circles you travel in (sarcasm?).  Certainly, in network (and often even cable) TV land these elites (wait, who? Sarcasm again) are treated as if they have plague – not to mention how many elite are now marginalized in political races.  But is something like the economic crises topical or old news two years since it happened.  Hmmm.  Networks are betting it is because it’s been so long since it’s been going on and, well, it IS still going on. Even if it’s been dissected, bisected and trisected by every 24 hour news channel and live conversation around every dinner table in the land almost every day.

Good for TV trying to be current.  I like that.  But why does it feel sooo old?  Because one needs more than a topic or a phrase to create something worth watching.  There’s something called characters, intriguing situations that are multi-dimensional and have some depth.  Or if not depth, then true wit based on situational observation, even of the silliest kind (e.g. South Park, anyone?).  This was not the case with many of the pilots you will (or won’t?) watch next month.  I won’t name names because the pilot is not always among the sharpest episodes of a series (uh, “Mad Men” and “Dexter” not included).  But network execs, who often bellyache that they’re outdone by cable TV at the Emmy awards each year – take note.  It takes a lot more than a topic to write a good paper as any teacher, or in this case Chair, will tell you.

Sure, there is reality TV – meaning the genre, not the concept.  Bachelor and bachelorettes, contests where people try to stitch together, cook together, love together,  can work.  But we’re not talking reality here – we’re talking old TV series television – or what it used to be (which isn’t reality but a dramatic or comedic reflection of it).  In other words, another kind of entertainment.  And a topical explosion does not get you anywhere near as far as a tropical storm.  The second is usually pretty-far reaching or it wouldn’t be so-named. The first is a benign condition that can become far-reaching only if it’s employed in some specific way.  That’s the best entertainment can do (with the exception of a few great belly laughs). Otherwise it just starts swirling among all the other millions of other things in the air.  And we have enough of all the rest of the swirl (or is it swill?) already out there.  Don’t we?  Time, as always, will tell.