When she learned a relative was gay, Amy Mesirow embraced the idea, used it as a teaching moment for her children and explained how it also would be OK if one of them were gay.
Then her son, who was 15 at the time, came out. “I felt like he was entering a whole new world, where I couldn’t follow him,” Mesirow recalled of her struggle to adapt.
Eventually, she found reinforcement in an unexpected place: television. “A year later, ‘Modern Family’ premiered,” she said of the hit show featuring a gay couple, “and changed my vision.”
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Today, gays and lesbians are the folks next door, brought to the nation’s living rooms through the force of popular culture. Whether fictional characters or the performers themselves, they’re on TV, in movies, in music, even in comic books. Many play roles that are not the often derisive stereotypes of a just a generation ago.
Popular culture is a key to the broad and rapid shift in the nation’s politics as the country has turned rapidly from long opposition to gay rights toward support for gays, including same-sex marriage, acceptance of a gay child and willingness to vote for a gay politician.
Millions watch Cam and Mitch, a married male couple raising a daughter on “Modern Family,” ABC’s five-time Emmy award-winning sitcom. “Same Love,” a marriage-equality anthem by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, jumped to the Top 5 on Billboard’s rap-music chart last year.
In comic books, Archie, the red-haired freckle-faced perennial teenager, was killed last year while protecting a gay friend. DC Comics introduced a gay Green Lantern two years ago. Marvel Comics presided over comicdom’s first same-sex superhero wedding when Northstar married his male partner in “Astonishing X-Men.”
There are 33 recurring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters on prime-time shows and 64 on scripted prime-time cable-television programs in the 2014-15 season, up from 42 in 2013-14, according to GLAAD, a gay-rights group.
It’s a long way from 1999, when the Rev. Jerry Falwell derided the children’s TV show “Teletubbies” because “Tinky Winky,” a purple character who carried a red handbag and had a triangular-shape antennae on his head, appeared to be gay.
“We’re far from a happy world … but we’ve made dramatic progress,” said actor George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu in the “Star Trek” television series and movies. He came out in 2005 and married longtime partner Brad Altman in 2008.
The portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in popular culture and the portrayals of people who love them, Takei said in an interview, have “contributed to changing American society.”
TV plays big role
While attitudes may be changing rapidly, acceptance is far from universal. “They are using their influence in socially irresponsible ways,” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said of the entertainment industry.
The group’s One Million Moms boycotted J.C. Penney in 2012 for hiring as its spokeswoman Ellen DeGeneres, who came out on her comedy show in the 1990s. Fischer said the group continues to target advertisers of shows it opposes. “Our concern is they are normalizing and sanitizing what is an unnatural and risky lifestyle,” he said.
Sanitized or not, the cultural impact on public opinion is undeniable, and that in turn is changing politics. Vice President Joe Biden, who endorsed same-sex marriage before the 2012 presidential election, cited the power of popular culture in helping facilitate the change.
“When things really began to change is when the social culture changes. I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far,” Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” referring to the NBC sitcom that centered on the friendship between roommates Will Truman, a gay lawyer, and Grace Adler, a straight interior designer.
While it seems sudden, the changes have been a long time in coming, a legacy of the civil-rights movement.
“We’re just now seeing the acceleration of a process that has been going on for more than 40 years,” said Nadine Hubbs, a professor of women’s studies, music and American culture at the University of Michigan.
The middle class has been gradually embracing homosexuality, Hubbs said, and “when celebrity artists come out, it contributes to the softening of the boundaries and eventually it can turn into a critical mass.”
Surveys suggest that the depictions carry influence:
• Twenty-seven percent of respondents said shows with LGBT characters such as “Modern Family” and Fox’s musical show “Glee” helped influence them to support same-sex marriage, according to a 2012 poll by The Hollywood Reporter.
• Thirty-four percent of respondents said seeing gays and lesbians on television and 29 percent said seeing them in movies helped change their views, according to a 2008 poll conducted for GLAAD by Harris Interactive.
For some Americans, viewing LGBT characters through popular culture and media provides a no-pressure, no-judgment insight into communities they might not otherwise see or fully understand. “Seeing it in the comfort of your own home, where you can work it through without anybody judging or watching you, is really useful,” said Mesirow, of Marstons Mills, Mass.
When Mesirow’s son Ben, now 22, came out, she quickly learned it’s one thing to intellectually accept homosexuality and another to come to grips with it emotionally when it involves a member of your immediate family. “You have visions for your child’s future, living a similar life to your own with a wife and biological children and the whole picket-fence scenario,” Mesirow said. “We felt he wasn’t going to be able to live a mainstream life and be accepted by people around him and be able to raise a family.”
Tuning into shows such as “Modern Family,” along with “The Fosters” on ABC Family and the Amazon-streamed show “Transparent,” helped ease her concerns.
“Here’s this gay couple with this big extended family that, for the most part, is very supportive; with co-workers and jobs with no issues to speak of,” Mesirow said of “Modern Family”
“Their lives are like any other couple’s … Just seeing it on the TV and feeling I got to know this couple and this family … just gave me a sense of relief and a vision that Ben could have this type of life.” Her search for understanding led her to join the support group PFLAG, Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Activists knew that increased positive visibility in popular culture would help change attitudes. “The best way to change hearts and minds is through media,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and chief executive of GLAAD. “For many, many years, networks were reluctant to depict LGBT people the same way they depict heterosexual characters. Ultimately, we want network TV to depict LGBT characters the same way they would straight characters: in a multidimensional way.”
ABC’s musical drama “Nashville” highlights country music’s resistance to gays with a storyline involving a closeted country singer who marries a woman to keep his secret. The actor who plays Will Lexington told Out magazine last year that he doesn’t believe country-music executives would give Lexington “the time of day.”
While the number of LGBT characters and plots are increasing on television, LGBT actors say they still experience discrimination behind the camera. Fifty-three percent of LGBT respondents to a 2013 survey by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists said they believe that directors and producers were biased against hiring LGBT performers.
A GLAAD report last summer found that only 17 of 102 movies from major movie studios in 2013 featured LGBT characters, and that most of those portrayals were negative. Some writers for DC Comics’ “Batwoman” quit in 2013 after the company reportedly rejected a storyline that had the superhero marrying her girlfriend.
Some LGBT-rights activists also complain that the change in popular culture has homogenized portrayals of gays and lesbians for the benefit of heterosexual audiences and paints an incomplete picture of their lives.
Suzanna Danuta Walters, director of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Northeastern University, said “Modern Family’s” gay characters “offer a narrow slice of gay life: two wealthy white men, who never touch each other.”
“There are people on the gay left who deeply regret the trend toward assimilation and desexualization,” said Paul Robinson, an emeritus Stanford University history professor and author of “Queer Wars: The New Gay Rights and its Critics.”
“There’s an argument within the gay community between those who support assimilation — getting married and joining the military — and those who think gays should be part of an alliance with women, poor people, people of color. The people who want to get married, have children, have won the argument.”