Gays, Lesbians, and the Media: The Slow Road to Acceptance

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IN 1990, ABC lost half its advertisers and $1,000,000 for an episode of "thirtysomething" showing two men in bed. Just a few years ago, "Roseanne" was slammed for an on-screen lesbian kiss with Mariel Hemingway, and the Fox network got cold feet and cut a gay kiss from its ultra-hip "Melrose Place."

That was then. This is now: "Friends" celebrated a lesbian wedding in which Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's real-life lesbian half-sister Candace officiated as minister. Transvestite RuPaul made a guest appearance as a flight attendant on "The Crew," a Fox comedy. On "Mad About You," the male lead's sister announced she is a lesbian. A gay precinct receptionist is a regular character on "NYPD Blue" and there was an openly gay secretary on "High Society." The list goes on and on. According to US magazine, during the 1994-95 television season alone, there were more than 15 lesbian and gay recurring characters on regular primetime shows. In 1996, the gay and lesbian presence in primetime television is unprecedented.

On cable, the Comedy Central network has presented several successful editions of a program called "Out There," a showcase for gay comedians. MTV carried the story of the late Pedro Zamora, a young gay Cuban man with AIDS, on "The Real World," It also has announced that lesbians and gays will be included in at least one episode of the network's dating game show, "Singled Out." (Imagine the old "Dating Game" letting bachelorettes question bachelorettes.)

On public television, there's a long-running gay and lesbian program called "In the Life." Television talk shows, though often crass and tacky, constantly are giving gays and lesbians a forum for shattering the silence about their lives. "Oprah," for example, did a show on gay marriage.

Over on the news side of television, where I work, though stories about and images of gays and lesbians have been slower in coming and less integrated into over-all coverage, there have been big changes in a relatively short time. Take, for instance, the way NBC News has covered one specific event that has taken place three times: the gay rights marches on Washington, first in 1979, then in 1987, and most recently in the spring of 1993.

In the 1979 broadcast, anchorwoman Jessica Savitch told the story of the march in approximately 25 seconds, in "voice-over" format, in which viewers see videotape of the event, but do not hear from any participants. At one point, Savitch clearly was perplexed by the word "homophobia" in the script she was reading; she said the word as though she never had heard it before. Today, of course, "homophobia" is used widely.

Coverage of the 1987 march lasted approximately 35 seconds, again in voice-over format, although anchorman Garrick Uttley put the march in better perspective. He reported that the demonstrators came to Washington to demand more protection from discrimination, as well as more money for AIDS research. The report used the term "AIDS victim," which people with AIDS always have found offensive, and ended by noting that "police reported no arrests and no incidents," a rather odd thing to say given that the videotape showed a very peaceful and compliant crowd.

By 1993, the news media had a much better sense of what the gay rights march was all about and had elevated its importance in its coverage. On NBC, Uttley was broadcasting live from Moscow on the night of the march. Normally, when an anchorman is on location, he's there for a journalistic reason that almost always is the lead story. On this night, though, the top story was that hundreds of thousands of "men and women gathered in the nation's capital, raising their voices and demanding change." Rather than a short voice-over read by the anchorman, it was reported by a correspondent live on the scene, with a taped reported in which many participants were interviewed. The reporter took notice of the fact that organizers disputed the Park Police's crowd estimates and explained that the event was meant to be "more than just a gay rights march. …