When Kate Wetherhead and I decided to create Submissions Only, a Web series about the trips and falls of working in New York theater, we had some pretty lofty goals: get some good footage for our reels, have an excuse to play with our talented friends, and score some sweet comments on YouTube from people whose names didn't include the words "Keenan," "Bolger" or "Wetherhead." If someone were to ask us if a goal would be to create positive depictions of gay characters, strengthening LGBT portrayals in the media, we would have said, "Uh... totes... yeah... that, too."
Frankly, I'm surprised anyone's even taken note of the queer politics on our show. When asked recently what kind of statement we were trying to make through our gay plot lines, I had to turn to Kate: "Wait, are we making a statement? I thought we were just trying to write compelling characters."
"Exactly," she shrugged. We weren't trying to write gay characters. We were trying write characters, and yeah, some of them happen to be gay.
Admittedly, I do live in a bit of a gay bubble. The New York theater scene has a far higher density of out gay men than, say, professional hockey does. It seemed only natural that a show about friends working in the theater community should feature a mostly gay cast of characters. But does the fact that our gay characters aren't first and foremost "gay" make Submissions Only a unique voice in the world of scripted series?
I decided to turn to my desktop folder of audition breakdowns for TV shows I'd gone in for over the past couple of years. I scrolled through projects in which I remembered having to play a gay character, and sure enough, a pattern emerged. After every character's name and age, nine times out of 10, the first defining characteristic was the word "gay." At the time, I guess I didn't find this strange, but what would I have thought if on a breakdown, a character's first attribute was that he was straight?
There certainly has been a shift in visibility. A record number of gay characters have appeared on TV shows in the past year, but few of them resemble any of the gay people I know. They usually function as a hat-tip to the gay community and are limited to a few sassy lines per episode. Yet when it comes to auditioning for these roles, I realize I'm often just as guilty as the writers. I often find myself surrendering three-dimensional, fully realized depictions for stereotypical gay prototypes, knowing that it's probably what they're looking for and will be more likely to get a laugh.
Perhaps our Web show is unique. We've always let sexual preferences take a backseat to focusing on the relationships and storytelling. That's not to say that our characters are asexual. They still find themselves running into exes at opening-night parties and industry functions. They still long to find boyfriends outside the biz, and they still become giddy and dry-mouthed when face-to-face with their sexy new handyman.
2012 is ushering in a new crop of TV shows, many of which claim to feature gay characters in supporting and principal roles. It's my hope that we've arrived at a crossroads, a time when writing a gay character for a series is more like being a gay person in theater, something no one really cares about.