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Gay culture, politics and The Kiss

Gay culture, politics and The Kiss

 
The New York Times
 
Friday, June 20, 2003
 
 Less than two weeks after Bravo announced that American TV's first gay reality series, "Boy Meets Boy," would arrive on cable this summer, CBS jumped the gun, staging the first live gay network reality show in prime time. They called it "The Tony Awards."
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Its host was Hugh Jackman, there to plug his Broadway musical debut next autumn as the gay singer-songwriter Peter Allen. Its most exuberant winner was Harvey Fierstein, playing a Baltimore hausfrau in "Hairspray." Best play was "Take Me Out," a ballplayer's coming-out story. Lest there be a gay drought during the commercial breaks, CBS tossed in promos for a new sitcom starring Nathan Lane as a gay Congressman. Even the featured song from the one kiddie musical of the theater season, "A Year With Frog and Toad," seemed to have an amphibious sexual orientation.
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And then there was The Kiss. Barely a half-hour in, smack in the middle of what used to be known as TV's "family hour," Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the "Hairspray" songwriters, locked lips to celebrate their Tony and their 25-year partnership. "We're not allowed to get married in this world," Shaiman told the United States. "But I'd like to declare in front of all these people, I love you and I'd like to live with you the rest of my life."
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Shaiman was wrong on the first point. Gay people can get married in this world, if not yet in Radio City Music Hall. Within 48 hours after he spoke, same-sex American couples started flocking to Canada, following an Ontario appeals court decision extending them full marital rights. The civil weddings are open to foreigners with no waiting period, Vegas-style.
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Given that the theater is, well, the theater, audiences may expect the Tonys to be over the top. But however skewed the Tony show is as a representative slice of pop culture, it is still consistent with a juggernaut that has been building in tandem with the modern gay civil-rights movement. It was 34 years ago this month that the movement took off, after the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, fought back against a police raid. Since then, entertainment has often been in the vanguard of familiarizing America with gay people, much as it was in spreading homophobia for decades before that. Now the speed of both political and cultural change is accelerating, so much so that politicians who are hostile to or flummoxed by homosexuality, including some in the Bush administration, are on a collision course with history.
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To see how quickly the cultural mood has changed, go back just six years. It was then that Ellen DeGeneres's elaborately staged coming out on the ABC sitcom "Ellen" merited weeks of TV coverage, the cover of Time, a disapproving statement from the Republican Party chairman (who knocked DeGeneres for undermining "a family kind of life" and congratulated his own party for seizing the "moral high ground") and a boycott of all Disney products and theme parks by the Southern Baptist Convention.
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This month Richard Chamberlain - "who made a career of wooing women for five decades," in the words of Dateline NBC - declared he was gay to widespread yawns. The Disney boycott, an utter flop, is not being duplicated by boycotts of AOL Time Warner (for HBO's "Six Feet Under") or Viacom (for Showtime's "Queer as Folk").
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As goes the culture, so goes much else. The day before the Tonys, an Episcopal diocese in New Hampshire elected that denomination's first openly gay bishop. The Supreme Court is thought likely to strike down state laws that forbid homosexual sex in the coming weeks. The former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and potential presidential candidate Wesley Clark indicated in an interview that he was receptive to the idea of homosexuals serving openly in the armed forces. The notion of gay marriage in all but name is spreading from Vermont to court cases advancing in Massachusetts and New Jersey. The marital revolution in Canada is likely to apply further pressures on both American judges and politicians to address the issue.
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The right would have us believe that the homosexualizing of America is a conspiratorial "gay agenda" concocted by "special interest groups" and promoted by big bad Hollywood. After all, the Tonyish Oscar candidates this year included Ed Harris as a gay man with AIDS, Salma Hayek as the bisexual Frida Kahlo and, heaven help the nation, the musical comedy "Chicago" in almost every category.
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But it's meeting gay people in person, not on a television or movie screen, that has done the most to integrate straight and gay America. More gay Americans are out than ever before, and at a younger age - down from the early- to mid-20s on average in the 1970s to 16 for males and 17 for females now, according to a recent study cited by Newsweek. A Gallup poll last month showed that 60 percent of Americans think homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal and 88 percent think gays should have equal rights at the workplace. More astounding, the Gallup numbers for the hot-button issues - gay marriage and gay adoption - are now dead-even pro and con.
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No wonder anti-gay fulminations increasingly have few, if any, takers in the prime time of American mass media. The religious right's jeremiads on the subject were discredited by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson's post-Sept. 11 listing of gay people among those who in their view caused the terrorist attacks. After the Republican Senator Rick Santorum compared homosexuality with bestiality, among other vices, in an April newspaper interview, he became a stock comic figure on TV. "When I said gay sex was as bad as man-on-dog sex, I meant man-on-male-dog," said his "Saturday Night Live" impersonator. "Sex between a human male and a female dog I got no problem with."
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All of this puts our current president in a jam. By keeping the gay baiters and bashers in his party under wraps at the 2000 convention, George Bush may have received as much as a third of the gay vote, according to exit polls - a far cry from 1992, when his father presided over a convention marked by homophobic ranting. It's in keeping with the president's slogan of "compassionate conservatism" that he or any national candidate can no longer afford to be soiled by anti-gay zealots.
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No wonder the White House tried (unsuccessfully) to keep its distance from Santorum's embarrassment and remained mum when John Ashcroft's Justice Department moved to cancel its annual Gay Pride Month celebration. Bush has left in place a Clinton executive order protecting gays from being penalized in federal employment. Only six years after Republican senators, including Ashcroft, went ballistic over Bill Clinton's appointment of a gay man as ambassador to Luxembourg, Bush has appointed a gay man with a live-in partner as ambassador to Romania. And this week Marc Racicot, who has been repeatedly attacked by the religious right for meeting with gay groups, was selected as the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign chairman.
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But at the same time a Bush nominee to a federal judgeship, William Pryor Jr., is on record saying that when homosexual sex is legal, it leads to legalized prostitution, necrophilia, bestiality, incest and pedophilia.
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This ideological switch-hitting doesn't fly anymore. Patrick Guerriero, who runs the gay Log Cabin Republicans, said in an interview that the time is arriving when "the Bush administration is going to have to decide to go on record" embracing gays "as part of the American family and the Republican party." There are just too many gay news events on the court, political and cultural calendars for the president to hide in the closet, nonsensically trying to split the difference between "compassion" and homophobia.
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One of those events, Guerriero points out, is the 2004 convention in New York, where both of the leading Republican office holders, Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, vocally support gay civil rights.
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Besides, you can't hold a convention right off Broadway without acknowledging the culture just outside Madison Square Garden's door.
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The New York Times