Gays and Lesbians in the Media

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In 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres announced on the cover of Time magazine that she was a lesbian, and her television character "came out" on the situation comedy Ellen, media attention was unprecedented. Partly due to a changing social climate that tolerated gays and lesbians more than in the past and partly due to the fact that television and film depictions of homosexuals were becoming more visible and accurate, a historic moment in media occurred. For one of the few times in television history, the lead character in a major program was homosexual and not shown as a lonely, evil, or homicidal character.

The history of the depiction of gays and lesbians in the mainstream media is a tale of negative and oppressive images. For some time their stories have been limited to suicide, murder, and evil. Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet (1987) lists more than forty examples of the ways gay or lesbian characters in films have died. The rest of his book details the effeminate and sissy stereotypes of gay men in movies, the butch and aggressive women identified as lesbian, and the general images of most homosexuals as victims and villains.

Given the historical invisibility of accurate images of gays and lesbians in mainstream movies and print publications, many gays and lesbians resorted to creating their own media, as Edward Alwood discusses in Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media (1996). Some of the earliest publications were a 1924 Chicago-area gay newsletter called Friendship and Freedom, a 1934 publication titled The Chanticleer, and a 1947 Los Angeles-area lesbian newsletter called Vice Versa. Beginning with the modern gay movement in the early 1950s in Los Angeles, ONE became the first widely circulated homosexual magazine, selling two thousand copies a month. Along with The Ladder, published by the Daughters of Bilitis from 1956 to 1970, and the Mattachine Review, published from 1955 to 1964, these important gay and lesbian media contributed to a growing sense of community and identity. The tradition continues with such widely circulated national magazines as The Advocate (first published in 1967, making it the longest continuously published gay magazine), Lesbian News, Out, and many other less-commercialized local newspapers, underground "zines," independent films, cable television shows, and World Wide Web sites that are produced by and for gay and lesbian audiences.

It should be remembered that these community-based media emerged as a reaction to mainstream films, newspapers, radio programs, and television shows that were slow in recognizing gay and lesbian lives. From the 1930s to the late 1960s, the Motion Picture Production Code was used to self-regulate Hollywood movies, and it set out a list of forbidden topics, including "any inference of sexual perversion," (i.e., homosexuality). Before 1930, many pre-code films had explicit references to homosexuals and numerous depictions of cross-dressing, but it was not until 1961 that the subject of homosexuality became more overtly depicted. The humorous, innocent sissy characters that were typical of the 1930s and 1940s gave way in the 1960s and 1970s to homosexual characters who were almost always lonely, predatory, and pathological. Consider, for example, William Wyler's two film versions of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour. According to Vito Russo (1987), censors prohibited the 1936 movie (called These Three) from depicting a lesbian character; she was changed to a heterosexual woman in love with her colleague's boyfriend. The 1961 version (using the original title of The Children's Hour), on the other hand, showed a lesbian character in love with her female colleague, even though the lesbian committed suicide in the end.

As television became more popular, stereotypical images of the effeminate, lonely gay man and the masculine, tough lesbian were dispersed more widely. With an increasingly active gay movement, pressure against the media emerged in 1973 when the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) in New York confronted executives at the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) about unfavorable treatment of homosexuality. That same year, ABC became the first U.S. television network to air a made-for-television movie about a gay topic, That Certain Summer. Within a few years, most major situation comedies, drama shows, and talk shows incorporated gay issues, typically as a special episode, but rarely in terms of a continuing character or plot. By the mid-1980s, however, any attention given to gay issues was, as Larry Gross (1994) points out, almost always framed in terms of AIDS, where gays were once again portrayed as victims or villains.

Following the activism of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) during the 1990s, there has been a trend toward more accurate and fair images of gays and lesbians in the media. According to Peter Nardi (1997), some of this is due to an increase in the production of media by gays and lesbians themselves. However, the mainstream media are also increasingly devoting more attention to gay images, especially in light of major social, legal, and political issues that have focused on gays and lesbians. Such controversial topics as "gays-in-the-military" and "gay marriage" generated many magazine cover stories, radio and television news features, and central attention on television talk shows. The talk show coverage usually did not contain the disparaging and distorted language that once would have been the norm, yet sometimes there was a sensational and exploitative tone, as Joshua Gamson describes in his analysis of tabloid talk shows in Freaks Talk Back (1998).

Television sitcoms, dramas, and news shows have increasingly included continuing characters who are gay or lesbian and stories with gay or lesbian themes. No longer are these forbidden topics or ones used to generate a laugh at the expense of the gay character. During the 1999-2000 television season, around thirty lesbian and gay characters (mostly created after Ellen broke new ground) appeared in prime-time shows, including Will and Grace, a comedy with two openly gay characters in lead roles; the adult cartoon shows, Mission Hill and The Simpsons; and dramas such as NYPD Blue and Dawson's Creek. However, Marguerite Moritz (1994) and Darlene Hantzis and Valerie Lehr (1994) argue that the price paid for the increase in depictions of gays and lesbians in the media is that these new characters look no different from everyone else in television. They are mostly white, middle class, typically desexualized, generally existing outside of any gay or lesbian social context and friendship circles, not threatening to heterosexuals, and usually free from oppression. This minimizes the real-life political, sexual, and social differences that often arise from having to live in a society where people continue to discriminate against and commit violence against gays and lesbians.

A more fair and balanced portrayal of gays and lesbians is also due in part to an increasingly tolerant climate in the media workplace. This new climate allows gay and lesbian employees to have domestic partner benefits, to work with less fear of job discrimination, and, thus, to be visibly present, organized, and open with their comments and creative skills.

The combination of changing societal attitudes toward gays and lesbians, advocacy by gay media watchdog groups, and openness to diversity in the workplace has contributed to a visibility of more accurate images of gays and lesbians in the media.

See also:Film Industry, History of; Sex and the Media; Talk Shows on Television; Television Broadcasting, Programming and.


Alwood, Edward. (1996). Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gamson, Joshua. (1998). Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gross, Larry. (1994). "What Is Wrong with This Picture? Lesbian Women and Gay Men on Television." In Queer Words, Queer Images, ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer. New York: New York University Press.

Hantzis, Darlene, and Lehr, Valerie. (1994). "Whose Desire? Lesbian (Non)sexuality and Television's Perpetuation of Hetero/sexism." In Queer Words, Queer Images, ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer. New York: New York University Press.

Moritz, Marguerite. (1994). "Old Strategies for New Texts: How American Television Is Creating and Treating Lesbian Characters." In Queer Words, Queer Images, ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer. New York: New York University Press.

Nardi, Peter M. (1997). "Changing Gay & Lesbian Images in the Media." In Overcoming Heterosexism and Homophobia: Strategies That Work, eds. James Sears and Walter Williams. New York: Columbia University Press.

Russo, Vito. (1987). The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, revised edition. New York: Harper & Row.

Peter M. Nardi