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The Gay Glass is Half Empty

So I know that the passage of Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in California and the recently de-gaying of Grey’s Anatomy may seem like small potatoes next to the election of our nation’s first black president, but I’m having a glass-is-half-empty week.

I was an Obama supporter from the beginning, from the first time I saw him speak, I knew he had my vote. He inspired me and made me believe that this country could be something great, that he could lead us to be a nation that I could be proud to claim as my own. When he won the SC primary, I saw him give his speech here in Columbia and felt politically empowered to the point of tears. When the west coast polls closed on Tuesday night and the news announced his victory, I was overwhelmed with joy, not just with his win, but with the fact that the majority of Americans chose to appoint him as our leader. I was truly proud to be an American for the first time in my adult life.

Then I checked the results of Florida’s Amendment 2 vote and California’s Proposition 8, both banning gay marriage in their respective states. While I didn’t expect a victory in FL, I was surprised and saddened to learn that California passed their ban. Then the next day, I learned that one of my favorite characters on one of my favorite TV shows had been written off because ABC execs were uncomfortable with the overt nature of her relationship with another woman. I want to be so excited about the direction American politics is taking, but I can’t help being worried about the lack of progress for GLBT rights and visibility, and these issues have been nagging at my mind all week.

Why is it that Americans will elect a man who supports civil unions that are exactly the same as marriages in all legal terms, but to call it “marriage” is still political suicide? How is it that soccer moms across the country will watch Ellen Degeneres every day, and clap when their favorite lesbian marries her girlfriend, but when two fictional lesbian characters have a sexual relationship on a notoriously sexually explicit TV show, the American public can’t handle it? Why did 61% of Californians vote for Obama, but only 48% voted against banning gay marriage? Why can a show like Will and Grace, which featured prominent gay characters be so incredibly popular for so many years, but when a show tries to take a serious look at a lesbian relationship without reducing its portrayal to stereotypes and jokes, network execs think they’ve gone too far and back-peddle?

It warms my heart to see that the American public has re-embraced Ellen after her career-killing coming out so many years ago. But let’s face it, Ellen is rarely political and very family-friendly. She’s popular because she’s hilarious and talented enough that people like her in spite of her sexual orientation. She and her gorgeous wife (until tuesday…now partner?) are the perfect portrait of hetero-normative lesbian bliss….which is fine, but it’s also more easily acceptable to the “I’m not homophobic… I have gay friends… I watch Ellen” crowd.

Will and Grace was entertaining, and although it occasionally tackled issues of homophobia, it was mainly comedic and pandered to stereotypes in order to get laughs. If viewers can laugh at gay characters, they become more palatable and less threatening to people’s prejudices. My parents loved watching Will and Grace long before they ever came close to accepting gay people.

And then there was Callica….Callie Torres and Erica Hahn, two female doctors on Grey’s Anatomy who considered themselves straight until they fell in love with each other. While there were certainly problems with the way Shonda Rhimes handled the development of their romance (that’s another blog entirely), this was the first attempt on network TV (in other words, aside from Showtime’s Queer as Folk and the L Word) to deal with a lesbian relationship seriously and as a recurring plot. The problem? Too explicit. It’s ok for straight characters on the show to routinely rip each other’s clothes off, talk casually about sex, and change partners as frequently as they change their scrubs, but the mere discussion of lesbian sex, couched in extremely vague terms, a few tame kisses, and a fully-clothed scene in bed followed by Erica’s declaration that she is “so extremely gay,” is too explicit.

The lives and relationships of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people deserve to be represented in television just as much as those of straight people, and in equal terms. Moreover, the desexualization of lesbians in contrast to the hyper-sexualization of gay men is based on stereotypes as well and must stop. Straight people who watch Ellen and go have sex with their opposite-gender spouse need to realize that when Ellen goes home to Portia, they have sex too, and those two sexual relationships should be treated equally.

Visibility is important, and Will and Grace, Ellen, Rosie, Portia, and all of the other shows and celebrities who deal publicly with gay themes and GLBT rights issues are essential steps toward equality and inclusion. But I think those on the political left often fail to acknowledge the homophobia that this visibility obscures because it’s easier to point to more overt and violent examples of anti-gay discrimination. Moreover, we let our progressive peers (like all of those Californians who voted for Obama and in favor of the gay marriage ban) get away with homophobia because it’s not as obvious as those people committing hate crimes and protesting pride parades.

So why is this all important…..because a significant portion of those we call allies in the struggle to make this country a better place are the very people keeping us from achieving legal steps toward GLBT equality. We can assume that right wing fundamentalists aren’t going to be voting for equality anytime soon, but the “moveable middle”–our most powerful potential allies–aren’t giving us much help either.

The fact is that the majority of Americans, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, are homophobic. They think GLBT people do not deserve to have the same rights as they do, and they are uncomfortable taking us seriously and seeing us in the same sexual terms that they see themselves and other heterosexuals. As far as we have come in our fight for gay rights, I think we have taken for granted many of the victories we’ve had in recent years in both legal and cultural realms, and this election serves as a painful reminder of how far we have left to go.

BETH SHEROUSE is a Graduate Assistant in the Department of History at the University of South Carolina, a Board Member of Sean’s Last Wish and a Volunteer Coordinator with South Carolina Equality.

 

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