Arts & Culture » Television

The Lavender Tube is a big gay kiss

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Danny (Chance Hurstfield) and Elliot (Bodhi Sabongui) finally got to kiss on ABC's "A Million Little Things." Photo: ABC-TV
Danny (Chance Hurstfield) and Elliot (Bodhi Sabongui) finally got to kiss on ABC's "A Million Little Things." Photo: ABC-TV  

It was nearly 10 p.m. on the floor of the Senate, and we had been watching the impeachment trial for hours. We were impressed by the breadth of data presented by the Democratic House managers. We were equally impressed by their ability to keep at it for so many hours without surcease. But after a long and exhausting workday of writing that had only partially included reporting on the impeachment proceedings, we needed scripted TV. Desperately. Preferably something that would give us an excuse to cry, because the fate of the republic seems to be in the hands of a bunch of GOP scoundrels.

Conveniently for us, the new season of ABC's "A Million Little Things" was about to air. Better still, the episode focused largely on Danny (Chance Hurstfield) and his crush on Elliot (Bodhi Sabongui). Spoiler alert: the episode ended with the two finally getting to kiss.

It is no longer that big of a deal to have a gay kiss on the tube. But Danny and Eliot aren't adults, they are a pair of 13-year-old junior high school kids. So this kiss? This particular kiss is still a groundbreaking and incredibly important event.

Danny was starring in his school's production of "Grease," and was about to have his very first kiss be with his female co-star, not the boy he has had a crush on since the beginning of last season. Is your first kiss a big deal? Yes, especially if it isn't with a person of the orientation-gender-sex you want it to be. Danny wanted his first kiss to be with another boy, not a girl.

We were actually yelling at the screen, "Do it!" as we watched Danny stand, agonized, with Eliot in the wings awaiting his scene. The tension was palpable. Finally Danny blurted out that he thought Eliot was avoiding him and he was about to kiss this girl and he wanted his first kiss to be meaningful — and Eliot grabbed him and kissed him.

It was sweet, real, and kind of awkward, and the sort of kiss two kids would have, and we loved it. Moments later Danny's female co-star whispered she was nervous about their kiss. He smiled and said not to worry, he had done it before and it would be okay.

Later, Danny went home and jumped on his mother, Delilah's (St├ęphanie Szostak) bed. She was holding his new baby sister and he said, "I had my first kiss!"

She smiled her sexy French MILF mom smile and said she knew, she was there at the performance and Danny said no, not that, and told her all about Elliot. Whew. What an episode. Was it a little schmaltzy? Perhaps. But here's the thing. LGBTQ kids are thinking about killing themselves at a rate far greater than their non-LGBTQ peers, and anything that mitigates against that is critically important. Seeing a gay kid being comfortable in his gayness and the adults around him being accepting sends such a powerful message. This was a beautiful episode, and the performances by Hurstfield and Sabongui were totally realistic and deeply moving.

On NBC, "This Is Us" has an equally powerful gay teen storyline that with a young black lesbian, Tess (Eris Baker), who is only 14, but who we have seen grow up over four seasons. More, please.

Podcast buddy

Are we the company we keep? That is a question for the Senate as they consider who the Trump cohort is. But it is also a question for presidential candidates as they consider whose endorsements to embrace and whose to reject as the voting begins. There is a bottleneck at the top of the polls with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg all vying for ascendancy as every poll has a shift. But while centrists may hate to see it, Bernie is vying for the top spot in most polls with Biden.

It is into this arena that Joe Rogan appears. Rogan is well-known from his various long-running TV series ("Fear Factor") and his popular Netflix comedy specials. "The Joe Rogan Experience" has been the second most-downloaded podcast on iTunes for two years running. Rogan's latest Netflix comedy special, "Strange Times," dropped last year.

Rogan is also known for his homophobic and transphobic views, with an unhealthy dollop of misogyny and a soupcon of racism tossed in. He has a long Facebook post in which he decries "The Dukes of Hazzard" being taken off the air as the work of "weepy sandy vaginas" upset about the Confederate flag. Rogan was quick to rally to Roseanne Barr's defense after her ouster from ABC for racist comments, making a spot for her on his podcast. He touts among his friends Alex Jones, the Sandy Hook denialist and Trump sycophant.

On Jan. 24, Bernie Sanders tweeted out an endorsement from Rogan, which set Twitter on fire. White male cis het pundits twisted themselves in knots explaining that this was a good thing because politicians have to work with people whose views they don't share.

This is the same suspect and specious argument Biden had previously used to excuse his friendships with segregationists in the Senate. But Rogan is not someone Sanders ever has to work with. He is a podcast shock jock and TV host whose anti-LGBTQ discourse is harmful. Is that discourse daily? No. But Rogan is known for it, and that should be enough. Sanders embracing the Rogan video and giving it his own imprimatur is a slap to LGBTQ supporters.

Invisible no longer

The furor over the Rogan endorsement is made more poignant by watching the official new trailer for "Visible: Out on Television." It will legit make you cry. It did us.

We have been writing this column for over 25 years. When we started it was, as so much of B.A.R.'s coverage has been over the years, groundbreaking. There were almost no queers on TV, no out actors, no mention of trans people. Homophobia and transphobia were rife. We had a regular segment called "News you're not seeing" about all the things that should have been on national newscasts about LGBTQ lives but were not. The PBS series "In the Life" was the only TV show addressing our community.

We were covering ground no one else was, seeking out queer or queer-affirming representations a full decade before GLAAD began their annual "Where We Are on TV Report." We were also calling out homophobic and transphobic shows and hosts. And making subtle requests for known lesbians and gay men like Anderson Cooper, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O'Donnell and Robin Roberts to come out. All since have.

This was the desolate landscape for LGBTQ viewers. Now GLAAD says that 10% of TV characters on scripted TV series are LGBTQ, the most ever. In the watchdog organization's latest report, released in Nov. 2019, GLAAD called on the industry for a representation of 20% by 2025, citing several studies that assert that number is the accurate percentage of Americans who identify as LGBTQ.

The new Apple documentary series covers this period and before. As Apple explains, "Visible: Out on Television" investigates the importance of TV as a medium that has shaped the American conscience, and how the LGBTQ movement has shaped television.

We have reported on this first hand, right here on these pages, so we know how real and true this is. We have borne witness to the evolution of gayness from neutered representations of gay men who are never sexual with each other to the steamy iterations on non-web TV: "How to Get Away with Murder," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Looking."

We have watched the once no-trans-allowed landscape bloom with fabulous trans characters in scripted TV like "Transparent," "Pose" and "Euphoria," and reality shows like "I Am Jazz." And lesbians occasionally get to be lesbians and bisexual women get to be bi without either being conflated with the other. There are even lesbian and trans women superheroes.

It's a whole new, ever-evolving landscape. On the newly rebooted "The L Word: Generation Q" there are two generations of trans men actors, lesbians, bisexuals and a trans woman actress playing a cis character in lust with a butch/masculine-presenting lesbian. But we are still in a time when LGBTQ characters are often just caught in storylines about their identity.

"Visible: Out on Television" combines archival footage with interviews with LGBTQ people from both the LGBTQ civil rights movement and the TV screen. The docuseries is narrated by Janet Mock, Margaret Cho, Asia Kate Dillon, Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Waithe. Each hour-long episode will explore themes such as invisibility, homophobia, the evolution of the LGBTQ character and coming out in the television industry.

The new trailer is so, so, so good, a powerfully cut narrative with snippets of interviews with TV icons as they explain how they deal with an industry still coming to terms with its place in the LGBTQ community.

"Visible: Out on Television" features never-before-seen interviews with Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper, Billy Porter, Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Sara Ramirez, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and more.

At a recent panel on Jan. 19, several of the main forces behind the series spoke about it. Wilson Cruz is in everything now, but when we first started this column, Cruz was one of the only gay actors on TV, starring in "My So-Called Life."

Now one of the executive producers of "Visible: Out on Television," Cruz said the series involves a lot of local news, journalism footage and interviews to showcase "the people who took it upon themselves to take the risk to tell the story, (as) opposed to the false narratives of people who don't necessarily know who we are. We are seeing a lot of the results of that today."

No alternative facts here. The series is directed and executive produced by Ryan White, who has done some fabulous documentary work, like "Ask Dr. Ruth," "The Case Against 8" and "The Keepers." White told reporters he was inspired by the 1995 feature film "The Celluloid Closet." But White said that the focus on TV gave his project a unique perspective, and that the five hours meant more detail and "allowed us the real estate to tell that story in full."

Comedian Wanda Sykes is another executive producer on the series. She gave an extended Sykes-ian take on the trajectory of lesbians on TV with her classic acerbic twist. She said her gay role models growing up were Marsha Warfield's Roz on "Night Court," Ann B. Davis' housekeeper Alice on "The Brady Bunch," and Xena, whom we used to refer to not as "Xena, Warrior Princess," but as "Xena, Lesbian Princess." There were numerous female law enforcers, like Kate Jackson on "Charlie's Angels." "All of them big lesbians," Sykes said.

We would add Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," who is the most unsuccessful-at-being-straight female detective in TV history, now in her 21st unmarried and unpartnered season in the longest-running prime time series, and as the longest-running female lead in TV history.

Jessica Hargrave, who was a director and executive producer on "The Keepers" with White and has done numerous other films, is also an executive producer on "Visible: Out on Television."

Two of the most moving interview clips come from two women of color: lesbian writer, director and actress Lena Waithe, and trans actress, producer and director Janet Mock. Mock said that she wanted to do TV because she wanted to make space for "women who look like me." Waithe said, "I did not realize I was the revolution I was waiting for."

Representation matters. In 1994 we wrote here about "NYPD Blue" adding a lesbian storyline and a gay actor, Bill Brochtrup, to the show, which was breaking all kinds of TV ground, both in language and in gritty realism. We noted that out black director Paris Barclay was redefining TV with the work he was doing there. As I have said repeatedly in the years since, when we are behind the camera, our stories are in front of the camera.

"Visible: Out on Television" arrives on Apple TV+ on Feb. 14. There is an introductory $4.95 offer to try the streaming eservice, and we think that it's well worth it; there is a lot of good, diverse programming on the newbie service. But a dollar an episode for "Visible: Out on Television" alone? Priceless.

Set your DVR for another big queer TV event on Feb. 8: it was announced Jan. 21 that RuPaul is hosting "SNL." We don't know how the drag legend will sissy that walk, but we do know it will be lit. RuPaul, who has been on TV for nearly 30 years, will be the first drag queen ever to host. The gig is part of RuPaul's promotion of their new Netflix series "AJ and the Queen."

Finally, on Jan. 23, Lilly Singh has had enough of straight people wanting to silence her and complaining that she talks too much about being queer. Singh hosts "A Little Late with Lilly Singh." She came out in Feb. 2019 as bisexual.

On her Jan. 23 show, she clapped back. "Since I started this show, I've had a lot of people online say things like, 'Why does she talk so much about being a bisexual woman of color?'" Singh said. "First of all, I talk about my dog and The Rock way more, so get your facts straight, okay? Facts." Singh is the only openly LGBTQ person with a late-night broadcast TV show.

So for the often arduous but always exciting march forward toward fair, responsible and honest LGBTQ representation, you know you really must stay tuned.

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