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A scene from Rosie O'Donnell's The View.
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Nearly every talking head on US television has been telling us that the upcoming November midterm elections are, more than anything, a referendum on President Bush’s (mis)handling of the war in Iraq.  And that’s undoubtedly true.  But that’s not all they’re about.  They’re also, in some parts of this country, about gay marriage …still.

Nine states have ballot initiatives, often (mis)labeled “marriage protection” acts, that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.  Nineteen states already have constitutional amendments explicitly barring the recognition of same-sex marriage. This means that if at least seven of the new ballots pass, more than half the states in the nation will have banned gay marriage. 

This statistic is very much in keeping with the findings of a major survey by the Pew Forum, released in July, which shows that Americans oppose gay marriage 56 to 35 percent.  Not surprisingly, those who say they have a high level of religious commitment oppose it by a substantially wider margin of 75 to 18 percent.  The prospects for same-sex marriage are not looking good.

And yet, turn on the television any day or night of the week and you’d think being gay was, well, no big deal.

Two of the three reining daytime talk show queens, Rosie and Ellen, are lesbians.  And, for the first time, Ellen has also been selected to host the 79th Annual Academy Awards, this February.  To put that in perspective, one year, the Academy Awards reached a worldwide audience of over 55 million people.  The influence of these women is simply incalculable.

This season Survivor and America’s Next Top Model both have openly gay contestants.  Grey’s Anatomy includes among its characters a gay bartender.  One of the brothers on the new Callista Flockhart / Sally Field drama, Brothers & Sisters is gay. Queer Eye continues to amuse and educate, Will & Grace can be seen more often than ever now that it’s in syndication, and the upcoming season of The L Word once again promises to titillate people of all sexual persuasions. 

A few years ago I might have asked, how did gay TV get to be so hot when the gay marriage debate is so heated?  But now, while gay marriage remains the source of passionate debate, gay TV is no longer a phenomenon.  Instead, it’s becoming a simple fact of life.  Characters can be gay without being labeled as “flamers” or “dykes”.  Characters can be gay without their sexual identity being the primary thing that defines them.  Characters can even be gay without their gayness causing them angst.

That’s amazing progress.  And there’s no doubt in my mind that the representations of gay characters and people on television have advanced the cause of same-sex marriage. But, at the same time that gay TV is shaping the culture, the culture is also shaping gay TV, containing it and restricting it from going “too far”.  By playing (mostly) by the rules, and accommodating rather than strictly challenging their mainstream audience, the creative and business forces behind gay TV have accomplished the seemingly impossible.  They’ve made gay TV safe for America. 

Take the case of Rosie O’Donnell.  After her six-year tenure as The Queen of Nice, she ended her popular daytime talk show, came out, wore her hair in what was dubbed an “angry lesbian” style, was involved in a bitter legal battle with McCall’s, the publishers of her self-titled magazine, and produced the Broadway flop Taboo, starring Boy George. 

Now, she’s making a comeback as the lead personality on The View.  I’ve watched several episodes (merely for research purposes, of course), and here’s what I’ve observed:  Rosie was quick to make fun of her angry lesbian haircut phase (admitting that even one of her children was frightened by it) and vowed to only wear her hair in a smooth and bouncy style. (Supposedly, her contract with ABC even stipulates that she cannot style her hair in a manner that scares middle America.  Mullets, spikes and buzz cuts are out!)  She talks about her four children more than Kathie Lee Gifford ever used to on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, in one episode even giving extensive advice on potty training to guest host and ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts (basically, bribe the kids with toys).  She refers, lovingly, to her wife Kelli, and she occasionally teases her in-laws.  Sometimes she makes the “L” sign with her thumb and forefinger and stage whispers the word “lesbian”.  She’s even explained how a lesbian, despite her sexual preference, could still legitimately have a crush on a “cutie-patootie” like Tom Cruise and how an avowed straight woman like Oprah could still be “a little gay, maybe five percent.” 

Rosie O’Donnell is doing exactly what she needs to be doing to make same-sex marriage less threatening or offensive to her audience:  appearing not so different from any straight counterpart.  In other words, appearing as herself. 

Rosie’s openness can make a difference: probably not among those who are vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage but, instead, among those who feel that marriage is between a man and a woman because that’s the way it’s always been defined.  When a mom in the studio audience or at home hears Rosie talk about wanting to bubble wrap one of her kids because he sleepwalks at night and has hurt himself bumping into things, how can she not empathize?  And if that mom was somewhat opposed to same-sex marriage or on the fence about it, the connection Rosie created with her may very well alter how she responds to gay issues in the voting booth. 

And, yet, the desire to be liked and accepted and empathized with—for any of us—comes with a price.  For gay characters and personalities on TV today, like Rosie, it’s de rigueur to downplay any differences from straight people and play up any similarities.  The most effective way of doing that, of course, is by taking the sex out of homosexuality—something that gay marriage by its very nature can not do. 

In order to reach out to people who are freaked out by gay sex either because they find it “ewwwwy” or because they’ve been taught that it’s an “abomination”, it’s safer for Rosie to talk about poopie diapers than Sapphic desires. It’s safer for Carson, the resident wit on Queer Eye, to talk raunchily about gay sex (“It’s a manwich…it’s more than a meal!”) than to express anything serious about it. It’s safer to reserve gay sex scenes for Showtime or HBO than to “subject” network audiences to them.  Think of all the various positions and locations for straight sex (ironically, sometimes in a closet) that take place on Grey’s Anatomy, and then try to think of a comparable scene involving gay men or women on network TV.  Kissing is usually as far as it gets. 

And so, gay TV has had to make some compromises.  How many seasons had to go by before Will was allowed to have a serious relationship on Will & Grace?  Remember how Samantha’s short-lived lesbian relationship on Sex & the City petered out because her love interest only wanted to talk and talk and take baths together…but not actually have sex?  Consider the irony of the Fab Five on Queer Eye planning the perfect wedding for heterosexual couples while, in real life, grooming guy Kyan’s upcoming marriage to his longtime boyfriend won’t be recognized by the state of New York. 

Have these compromises been worth it?  I hope so.  The real question now is, can gay TV make gay marriage safe for America?  Stay tuned.  We’ll find out more on Election Day, November 7th.

In her "Vox Pop" column for PopMatters Meta voices her observations about pop culture, particularly as it intersects with our lives. She is endlessly fascinated by the myriad ways in which our pop culture choices reflect back on us -- our beliefs, our desires, our idiosyncrasies, our intellects. Wagner's published pieces include written commentaries, features, and profiles for Salon, Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. You can visit her blog here. When she's not writing, Meta is molding young minds as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, where she teaches creative writing. She also developed and occasionally teaches a column-writing class at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston.

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