Queering the Vast Wasteland


Gay TV—clearly,
this is an idea whose time has come. After all, in the words of the porn
industry, it’s a money shot. So on January 10 MTV and Showtime, cable outlets
both owned by Viacom, announced that they were developing the first cable
channel geared to a lesbian and gay audience. The proposed channel would operate
as a pay channel along the lines of HBO or Showtime, but would cost subscribers
possibly as little as $5 a month. A startup date has not yet been announced.

Just a week after
Viacom’s announcement, MDC Entertainment Group’s Alt1-TV announced its own plans
for a gay-and-lesbian channel that would premiere in early 2003. Alt1-TV’s
channel, unlike Viacom’s, would be funded by advertising. The Canadian- based
PrideVision, which premiered four months ago to very positive reviews, is
seriously considering expanding into U.S. markets.

The Viacom and
MDC announcements have given rise to lots of humor columns speculating about
future programming (the Washington Post’s Hank Stuever scored a laugh
with “The Weakest Twink”). But media critics agree with the proposed channels’
producers that success or failure will lie in the quality of its shows.
“Programs and content make a network not the other way around,” noted MDC’s
David McKillop,

While it is nice
to know that television execs are interested in quality, the idea of a specialty
gay-and-lesbian television channel raises issues that strike at the heart of how
the gay movement generates and sets its agenda.

A popular myth
holds that increased public visibility is crucial to a minority’s
liberation—even equivalent to it. In this tradition, Joan Garry, executive
director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), greeted the
unveiling of these homo-channels with the rousing battle cry, “The flag I’m
carrying is for visibility, the more the better.” Indeed, visibility has been a
hallmark of American social-justice movements over the past half-century.
African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, women, homosexuals, and
other marginalized groups have long demanded that they be represented more
frequently and more accurately in the media, which was accustomed to blatantly,
and often grotesquely, stereotyping “minorities”—or ignoring them altogether in
what was essentially a white and male-dominated landscape.

There’s no
question that visibility in the entertainment and news media introduces
minorities into the fabric of everyday life. Shows like “The Jeffersons” and
“The Cosby Show” broke through some of the stereotypes of African Americans as
depicted on television and, by extension, they influenced to some degree how
African Americans were perceived by the broader white-majority culture. So it is
probably better to have black sit-coms on television than not. It is probably
better to have “Will and Grace” and “Ellen” on TV than not. Just as it is better
to have non-biased coverage of the Matthew Shepard murder or more racially
sensitive coverage of African-Americans than not. Though it is a vast wasteland,
television is also a great equalizer and through the increased exposure it
offers it helps render minorities more ordinary. The late wit and arch-queen
Quentin Crisp referred to this truism, only half jokingly, as “liberation
through banalization.”

But this version
of liberation, which places a high premium on visibility, isn’t universally
embraced. For as long and hard as some have fought to increase visibility, there
have been others who claim that such visibility comes at too high a price—that
the “banal- ization” inherent in the main- streaming of minority images presents
nothing but false, easily accessible and acceptable stereotypes that ultimately
cause more harm than good. Did “The Cosby Show” help eliminate white racism or
did it just present a portrait of upper-middle-class blacks who had almost
nothing to do with the reality in which most African Americans (most Americans,
for that matter) live?

Critics of
liberation-through- visibility politics also note that increased media exposure
does not ensure that the actual lives of gay men and lesbians are better.
According to government statistics, hate crimes against gay men and lesbians are
on the rise, even though “Will and Grace” continues to win Emmy Awards. Hillary
Swank’s Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don’t Cry certainly didn’t end
violence against, or guarantee acceptance of, trans- gendered people.

The debate over
the politics of visibility is laid out neatly by Suzanna Danuta Walters in her
new book All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America. But as
fascinating as this discussion may be, it is largely beside the point.

To understand the
political stakes for gay people in gay cable channels, you have to begin with
the recognition that, by and large, the U.S. media is conceived and run by
commercial interests that have little intention of making anyone’s lives better.
Television, along with the other arms of the entertainment industry, exists to
make money. To that end, as media conglomeration proceeds at an unprecedented
rate, programming has grown dangerously homogeneous. For gay liberation, the
implications are alarming.

Sure, there’s a
lot of talk about the “responsibility” of the media and the important role it
plays in shaping opinion and keeping the public informed. But this, for the most
part, is nonsense. Although there have been a few instances—the Pentagon
, Watergate, and, if we’re lucky, the ongoing and unfolding Enron
scandal—when media has played the role of good citizen, they have been few and
far between.

After September
11, there was a lot of talk about serious and sustained reconsideration of media
priorities. The September 11 attacks were alleged to be the new millennium’s
wake-up call to an urgent sense of fresh responsibility. No more wallowing in
scandals like the Bill-and-Monica affair, no more sleazy tabloid speculation
about the whereabouts of Chandra Levy or the intricacies of the Rudy G. and
Donna Hanover divorce. But these sentiments vaporized before they could be
properly realized. Winnona Ryder’s arrest and the collapse of Mariah Carey’s
record deal have replaced frisky and missing White House interns.

It is just as bad
now as it was before. Of course, the entertainment is not much better. The major
networks’ magazine-format news shows are just this side of “Entertainment
Tonight” and “Survivor” is beginning to look like a scripted TV drama.

The bottom line
is that the media is driven by bottom-line commercialization and generally
relies on the lowest possible standards. Hey, you didn’t hear throngs of gay men
and lesbians clamoring for a gay television channel. It was the idea of
corporate media marketing engineers. The opening sentence of the New York
report on MTV’s decision to develop a gay and lesbian channel states
clearly: “Looking to take advantage of what they say is a large and lucrative
niche audience untapped by television programmers…. ” While the corporation
promoting these ventures is not claiming to be helping, or even to be interested
in, the gay and lesbian community or its political struggles, there is always
lurking in their rhetoric, the notion that the increased visibility afforded by
gay television would “be good for the gays.” The reality is that gay cable-TV
channels are going to represent corporate interests, not those of the community.
Can you imagine a gay network giving any more time than do current network news
shows to such non- mainstream groups as queeruption, the Lesbian Avengers,
groups focusing on gay people of color, or NAMBLA? Sure there will be coverage
of the Human Rights Campaign, the Log Cabin Club, GLAAD, and Lambda Legal
Defense—all of whom already get some coverage in the mainstream media—but for
the most part, the wide spectrum of community organizations and interests will
be ignored, particularly if they don’t cater to acceptable mainstream

Or consider this.
Will the entertainment coverage on gay channels include queer avant-garde
artists, writers, or performers? Will we see interviews with Dennis Cooper? The
Five Lesbian Brothers? Or Jennifer Miller, the famous lesbian bearded woman who
performs in circuses and alternative venues?

Don’t bet on it.
Like recycled “Entertainment Tonight” and E-Network fare, the bulk of gay
television will focus on the new film where a noted Hollywood male celeb goes
“gay for pay” or on which straight celebs show up for an AIDS benefit.

The idea of a gay
and lesbian channel became possible because over the past two decades queer
content on TV and other media outlets has increased. From the early days of the
famous drag-queen episodes of “All in the Family” and the lesbian subplot on
“Golden Girls” to the far more central and explicit queerness of “Will and
Grace,” gay-and-lesbian characters and themes have become something of a staple
on network television. This development has been an indicator of changes in
American mainstream culture, which raises the question, wouldn’t gay TV be

After all, if
current gay programming were politically ineffective altogether, why would the
Christian right continually call for boycotts of gay-themed shows, holding them
up as signs of moral decay? But let us not forget that their popularity
generates substantial revenue. Gay-themed programming is certainly not aired
because the networks have a commitment to gay visibility or intend to engineer
positive social change for gay people.

But there is a
terrible irony here. It is clear that an audience exists—with a gay and lesbian
viewership at its core—to support these shows on network television. It is quite
possible, however, that a gay cable television channel would actually have an
adverse effect on widespread visibility. It could function as a drain to take
the gay and lesbian content out of network television and to re-ghettoize it.
Why should networks continue with gay content if that core—and relatively small—
audience is getting it elsewhere? In the end, the question about gay cable
television channels is not how much they will help gay people, but how much they
might hurt them?                                Z