July 9, 2015

How Theater and TV Boosted Public Acceptance of Gays

Theater and television have played key roles in the ever-growing acceptance of homosexuals. And most of the sharp turnaround in public perception has happened since the early 1990s.

Gay Mormons Have Helped
Two award-winning shows mark the beginning and end of this period. By a strange coincidence both portray gay Mormons.

'Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia

The first was Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Told in two parts over seven hours, this epic play about America in the age of AIDS offers sweeping arguments about American ethics and morals.

But it's also a very personal drama. A gay man deserts his lover when the lover contracts AIDS. That same man then seduces a married, deeply closeted Mormon who works in Roy Cohen's office.

Pretty heady stuff, huh? Not so with the second show, The Book of Mormon. Here's the number "Turn It Off" which includes a bit about gay Mormons. It's fun, even if this scene is quite different from what I saw at the theater.

Depicting gays and gay themes on stage is so common these days that sometimes I want to say "turn it off." I walked out of Shakespeare Theatre's recent production of Tartuffe partly because I got tired of the attempt to update the play by injecting pointless gay erotica.

Nothing Like TV
But stage shows depicting gays can't have anywhere near the impact on mainstream America that television does. I'm not a great TV viewer, so I went online and found these comments in Variety from playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein, who's won Tony Awards for his "Torch Song Trilogy" and "La Cage aux Folles."
Pre-Stonewall, you had “Tea and Sympathy” and “The Children’s Hour,” but after Stonewall, we had the same crap. The characters were more out, or maybe their roles were a little bigger, but they still had to be tragic. 
How does theater or art help? Visibility is everything. Many people are against homosexuals having rights, but no one wants his brother Arthur being thrown out of an apartment because he’s gay, or losing his job because he’s gay. We had to turn “them,” or “those strange people over there,” into our family, our friends, people we know. Nothing does that better than art.
Well, nothing does it better than television. Television does it the best, because you’re watching these people in your underwear. They’re in your house. Whatever anybody may say about “Will & Grace,” they were in everybody’s living room. You ate dinner while you watched them. They were part of your life. And it’s very hard to then deny rights to those people you adore on television.

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