“When did you learn that you were gay?” What a stupid question. Think about it. When did you learn that you liked boobs, or dick? It’s hard to answer because you just knew. Guess what? It’s the same for us gay homosexuals.
When I do get asked this question, I think of the TV shows and movies that heightened my understanding of a gay reality. Hollywood was my (and many of my fellow gay dudes’) only outlet, mainly because it was the only way we knew anything about being gay, since we didn’t have any peers or real life examples (most of the time, everyone has that uncle). I know for a fact that this is often the same for how women learn to be women, or how teens define their relationships, but like, this is about me, thank you. Often sad — thanks, Hollywood — but sometimes genuinely happy, the following is my fabulously gay biography, brought to you by 20th Century Fox.
1. The Golden Girls & Designing Women
There was an episode of The Golden Girls where Blanche’s brother, Clayton, came out. He actually used the words, “I’m gay.” Mini-me (6 years old) sat in front of the TV and thought, “So that’s what that means. Am I gay?” Then Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women famously said that, “AIDS isn’t a gay disease,” which, I’m sad to say, I didn’t know. At this point, I was too young to fully understand either of these moments, but I knew they related to me somehow.
2. Madonna: Truth or Dare
More than just a documentary, Madonna: Truth or Dare put openly gay people onscreen as friends, partners, sons and daughters. Sure, it was all about Madonna (as I and most every other gay dude in 1990 were), but really it was her telling me that it’s OK, I’m not weird, I’m just fine. Now Vogue!
3. Philadelphia & The Real World: San Francisco
I hit puberty between 1993 and 1994, which amplified my gay awareness (not to mention my deep appreciation of everything penis). Then Philadelphia came out and scared the shit out of me. Sure, AIDS isn’t a gay disease, but it could happen if I had sex. WTF?! The following year The Real World: San Francisco premiered featuring Pedro Zamora, an openly gay man living with AIDS. The fear that Philadelphia caused was dissipated by the life Pedro lived. It showed something that so many shows and films couldn’t show, what it’s like to live with AIDS.
4. Muriel’s Wedding
Yes, I’m aware this isn’t a gay movie. But come on, what gay man hasn’t felt like Muriel? That outcast that lusts after the stud? It’s basically every night at the gay bar for me.
5. Roseanne & My So-Called Life
Almost every portrayal of gay life up until Roseanne was tragic in some way (AIDS, suicide, lusting after the straight man…). But the simple act of casting gay characters as regular and active parts of the Conner family’s life was the biggest statement of equality in the early 90’s. Then came My-So Called Life and Ricky, the first gay bestie on TV. I didn’t want to be a bestie, but I wanted to date one.
6. The Birdcage
I freaked out when my family wanted to go see The Birdcage. “If they see it, they’re going to know I’m gay…,” I thought. But my family loved the film, like estacially so. This was the first sign that they might be fine with my being gay. Guess what? They were.
7. Ellen & Matthew Shepard
I categorize everything in gay life as pre and post Ellen’s coming out, because it genuinely was a turning point in the gay identity of myself and the rest of the country. I watched the coming out episode on the lowest volume possible in my bedroom, so that my family wouldn’t hear what I was watching. Then, still high on this dawning of a new gay liberation, Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay. These two events shouldn’t go together, but they do, because they illustrate that change doesn’t come easy.
8. Boys Don’t Cry / But I’m a Cheerleader / Will & Grace / Queer as Folk / Hedwig and the Angry Inch
From 1999 until 2004, I was in college and starting my career. I had a boyfriend for the first time, a group of gay friends, an active life. During this time, gay characters became a common place on TV and in films, but in ways that I couldn’t relate. It was as if these characters were being written for straight people, almost like gay artists were trying to find their voices in a post-Ellen world. Boys Don’t Cry reinforced the dangerous Matthew Shepard reality of gay life. Will & Grace allowed straight people to laugh at (I mean with) gay people, which in turn gained us more acceptance. Then came But I’m a Cheerleader, Queer as Folk and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, all of which were totally unreal, heightened realities, pure fantasies. It was here that the message was heard loud and clear: don’t conform, be weird, you’re cool. I took heed and stayed weird.
9. Brokeback Mountain
It wasn’t the actual film that made a difference in my gay life, but rather it losing the Best Picture Oscar to Crash. This rallied my gay friends, the anger this inspired was amazing. I liked the movie, but I liked the response to it losing the Oscar more. I loved that something as trivial as losing an Oscar could rally a community. Also, it drove this dude to stay up really late one night and make this. Oy!
Before RuPaul’s Drag Race and binge-a-thon shows, Logo was revolutionary. An all-gay cable channel?!?! At first it was basically documentary programing, and that was just fine. I didn’t need to watch the channel, just knowing that it existed made me happy.
There came a point in my life where being gay was just a thing, it wasn’t something that needed a pop culture element to define me, like it did during my adolescence. Back then, since I was basically alone on this gay adventure, I needed Hollywood to fill that lonely void. Now I had boyfriends, friends, I was having sex (don’t ask how much), living my life openly. Weekend, a film about a weekend love affair between two average young-ish dudes, captured modern gay life perfectly. We’re not married, we don’t have children, but we have friends that do and are. Sexually we’re more open, we can get wild, but we still crave that intimacy. It showed the mature love that I’m looking for now (hint — you can find me on Thought Catalog Locals).
I’ll be honest, Looking bores me, but that’s kind of why I love it. For the first time in my life, I don’t have to like a gay show just because it’s gay, or because there aren’t any other options out there. It’s like, I don’t need this show to enhance my identity as a gay dude the same way I once did. We can even mock it (check out Funny or Die’s Not Looking). I’m identifying with gay stories in other ways, like through the web series Eastsiders, made outside the Hollywood studio system. I’m grateful for the past nuggets of gay joy Hollywood offered me these past 31 years, because without these moments I don’t know that I would have gotten to this place as a proud, somewhat balanced, albeit emotionally unstable, gay man.
Depictions of gay life from Hollywood are still very one-dimensional, but it’s changing. Hopefully one day characters won’t have to be defined by their gayness, but rather because of who they are. Just like I hope one day straight people will stop asking, “When did you know you were gay?” and instead ask, “When did you know you liked cheese?” or anything else equally as banal.
PS: It’s cheddar, in case you were wondering what’s my favorite cheese.