Yesterday morning while getting ready for work, NPR ran the following story on 91.5 KIOS FM, which began like this:
“As the Supreme Court prepares this week to hear two cases testing the constitutionality of gay marriage, there’s one undeniable fact surrounding the debate: Americans’ views on gay marriage are changing dramatically. Steve Inskeep explored why with NPR’s Shankar Vedantam.”
The story stated that people vigorously opposed to gay marriage 20 years ago might now be only mildly opposed to gay marriage, people mildly opposed are neutral, people who were neutral are now pro gay marriage. The story went on to say polls indicate approval of gay marriage has quadrupled since 1988, with more than 50 percent supporting it.
Vedantam pointed to the gay rights movement and shifting attitudes toward marriage and non-traditional relationships by heterosexuals as drivers of a rapid change in attitude over the past five years. Dawn Michelle Baunach, a sociologist at Georgia State University, said that as more gay people have come out of the closet, it’s changed the view of many Americans who now “know” someone who is gay. Inskeep pointed to the about-face made by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, now in favor of gay marriage after learning that one of his sons is gay.
While I have no doubt that all of the above is true, the story missed the single most important reason why people are more accepting of gay lifestyles — and gay marriage — than ever before. That reason is television.
Television is the most influential thing in all of our lives. Watching TV is the one activity (unfortunately) that most Americans spend most of their time doing — as much as five hours a day, according to one study. For better or worse, TV has become our most important learning tool, and the way we define our worldview. And if you grew up watching TV in the ’70s, it was a world without gay people.
Back then I remember only two guys on television that I would find out later were gay: Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Riley. I knew Lynde only as the snarly, sassy Uncle Arthur from Bewitched and later as the funniest guy who sat in the center of Hollywood Squares. Charles Nelson Reilly was the campy wise-cracker on Match Game who also was the occasional “special guest star” on episodes of Love Boat or Love American Style. At the time I had no idea either was gay — I didn’t know what “gay” was. Neither “came out” before they died. Looking back, they didn’t have to.
Then in 1977, ABC launched one of most controversial sitcoms in TV history: Soap. For you young folks out there who have never known anything but the Internet and 1,300-channel cable television, the world of TV in 1977 was comprised of three commercial network channels and PBS. It was a simpler time; some might say it was a better time.
Soap was the first TV show that kids (or any good Catholics for that matter) weren’t supposed to watch. Doing so felt like a subversive act; it felt dangerous. But of course I watched it anyway, right alongside the rest of my family. Soap was a raunchy, sexy satire of daytime soap operas, and while the Moral Majority hated just about everything about it, their focus was squarely on the character of Jodie Dallas, the openly gay son of central character Mary Campbell, played by a very young Billy Crystal.
It’s safe to say Jodie was the first person that I — along with a majority of middle-class Americans — knew was gay. He was a complete oddity for the time, even though Crystal played the character as un-campy and with as much matter-of-fact “normalcy” as any other character on any other TV show.
And that’s what frightened the Moral Majority. Because if a gay character could seem “normal,” well, what kind of message was that sending? In fact, Jodie was one of the few characters on Soap who not only seemed “normal,” but intelligent. He was just a nice guy who happened to like men.
Of course, Soap couldn’t leave it at that, and eventually Jodie would go on to father a son (though he never got married), ended up in a prolonged custody battle, became the victim of a failed hypnosis therapy and on and on until the series ended in 1981.
It would be years until another gay character would become a regular on prime-time television, but none would have as much impact as Jodie Dallas. Over the past 10 years, gay TV characters have become almost commonplace, whether on Will & Grace and Glee, or cable’s Six Feet Under and Queer as Folk.
According to GLAAD, today nearly 5 percent of characters on primetime television are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Appropriately, ABC leads the way with the most prime-time characters identified as LGBT, not to mention arguably the most popular TV show that portrays a gay couple — Modern Family, featuring Mitchell and Cameron, and their daughter, Lily.
But who cares about network TV when you’ve got cable’s Bravo TV and its plethora of reality programming chock full o’ gay. In fact, there are now entire cable networks dedicated to gay programming. Not to mention the talking heads: Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow and the queen of daytime television, Ellen Degeneres. If anything, the typical American TV watcher thinks there are more gay people living among them than there actually are, and what’s wrong with that?
It’s a long way from just 30 years ago, when the concept of gay marriage was simply too “out there,” too unbelievable even for television. And now here we are with the the Supreme Court debating its constitutionality. Jodie Dallas would be proud.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.