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Gay for Play?

Was last week a great one for U.S. gays? Or was it great for the media to say it was a great week for gays?

- July 2, 2003

It's a big gay world out there.

At least, that's what the press wants you to believe. From my viewpoint, as a fuscia card-carrying gay Alpha male, last week was a boondoggle for anyone following gay stories in America: The Supreme Court said OK to sodomy in Texas, Canada said OK to gay weddings, Richard Chamberlain (Richard! Chamberlain!) said OK admitting he's a big homo, and finally—this is my favorite one—MTV said OK to a top-ten band (t.A.t.U.) that's, as one of the many magazine articles called it, "all lesbian, all the time."

But let's yawn and digress. Is all this really the series of huge breakthroughs the media are suggesting? Because it sounds to me like just a lot of hype to sell newspapers. Truth is, we've seen this all before.

A generation ago, Rock Hudson came out to the world on his deathbed from AIDS, smack-dab in the middle of Reagan America. At that point, a scant few years before the Supremes said no to sodomy in Georgia, the mass media talked a big game and asked Americans to be a lot more compassionate in its dealings with our gay brothers and sisters.

Then we waited for 20 years—past noise like "Don't ask, don't tell," past Barry Winchell's horrific death from homo-bashing Army boys, past that shady Defense of Marriage Act and Matthew Shepard, to, finally, somewhere up north a gay bishop happened upon the scene. So the big news now is that it's OK to be gay. Again.

Of course, it isn't entirely OK. The media message of the moment notwithstanding, Bill Frist, the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, reacted to the Supreme Court decision by grandstanding Monday that he'd like an amendment to the constitution that gay marriage be disallowed.

That is progress with a small p. Not gay with a capital G.

So how to explain this dichotomy? Perhaps it's that the public isn't really so much more accepting, the culture isn't really that much different—just as it wasn't back in 1985, when Hudson died. Perhaps the reality is that the media has grabbed onto this storyline more because it's a sellable one than because it's the truth.

Let's go back to Chamberlain. His publicist insists breathlessly that he should get a big "tsk" for his act of boldness. He should? For 40 years he played dull and straight. Then in the last few weeks he got exciting and on the cover of People magazine for telling the world that, oh yeah, he's gay. Oh really? And, oh yeah, he happens to have a book for sale. Which I'm sure is just a coincidence. (Much like Liz Smith, who also conveniently came out in what very briefly became a must-read memoir.)

Sunday I stood in a trendy Santa Monica video store and spotted the original Bourne Identity, which was remade last year with the adorable—and straight for now—Matt Damon. Chamberlain played Damon's role in the first version, and I had to laugh at the laboriously butch face Chamberlain was making on the box. He hasn't had that kind of fame in years, and his new efforts—being retired and fabulously gay—reek of a last-ditch effort to gain a buck off fame. To make matters smellier, he told Dateline quite sincerely that he is "not a romantic leading man anymore and [no longer needs] to nurture that public image anymore." Did anyone in the press ask about his implicit suggestion that his fans are total idiots?

What Chamberlain's old-world PR people are pulling is very 1950s: Let's tell the world he's gay, to get him some more attention. (Right: Ask Rosie O'Donnell see how far being queer's gotten her.) Chamberlain is an actor who has been downgraded to his generation's Larry Storch. You know, another TV actor who has had to pay rent by appearing in, say, cheaply constructed bus and truck companies of My Fair Lady. Now that he's gay—such excitement!—maybe people will pay attention to him again.

So, while the media is overjoyed to create circuses around people diving straight into gaydom, and the courts are nodding their ascent to a bedroom act, my mind wanders a decade back to the Gay March On Washington during those naïve first days of Clintonism. There, with little fanfare, I watched Martina Navratilova address hundreds of thousands of wide-eyed attendants. "Stop looking for signs of acceptance," she said. Acceptance can always be revoked, but "America needs to see gays and lesbians as just as boring as they are."

But being boring wouldn't sell any newspapers.

Richard Laermer is the founder of RLM PR and a instructor. He's the author of Full Frontal PR: Getting People Talking About You, Your Business Or Your Product and is slowly writing a book about mediocrity in America.

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