I had a chance to preview CNN's first episode of their new Gay in America series: Gary & Tony Have A Baby. Unlike the multi-hour Black In America extravaganzas, the network has several one hour shows planned to look inside the queer community. BIA host Soledad O'Brien also helms this documentary.
When the press kit arrived, I didn't bother to read the letter or description. The title spoke for itself: two gay guys are having a baby. I wasn't impressed; as a starter topic it's about as original as a documentary on pride. My partner, Jerame, however, was excited that the news network was focusing on our community and really wanted to watch it.
Before we popped it into the player, he chastised me for being so pessimistic about the show. As the DVD started to play, I looked at Jerame and made a few predictions. Not only did I nail every one, but the documentary goes so far beyond the usual mass media dreck that GLAAD should issue an action alert about it for perpetuating gay stereotypes.
Here were the predictions I made for Gary & Tony Have a Baby without looking at any of the press materials:
- The couple would most likely be white although there was a small possibility that one would be black. They definitely wouldn't both be non-white.
- They'll be in their mid 30s to early 40s.
- They would be upper middle class.
- They would live in a gay ghetto. Most likely New York City, Washington DC, or San Francisco.
- They would both be "gay masculine": that slightly effeminate masculinity always portrayed in the media. No nellies need apply.
- They would be married.
- They would have a surrogate child instead of adopting or through heterosexual sex.
A Checklist for Stereotypes
Call me jaded, but mass media docunews reports tend to fall along two different lines - either they're the fawning "Gay Is Good!" tug-at-the-heartstrings shows or they're the "Think of the Children!" exposés that try to titillate and shock viewers into feeling disapproval and disgust. Gary & Tony definitely falls into the former category.
Gary Spino and Tony Brown are New York City activists in their 40s. The couple married in Canada and, in the course of one hour, spend a small fortune on a surrogate mother, an egg donor, legal fees, travel costs, and medical bills.
I'm not naive enough to think that an arch homophobe would tune into a CNN special report, see a piece on gay dads and suddenly join the local PFLAG chapter. The people who will tune in will either be queer themselves or already sufficiently friendly to the community. For the most part, they're preaching to the choir and no minds will be changed by this puff piece.
If the audience is the LGBT community itself, then the piece soundly fails since it highlights a tale so preposterously stereotypical that it doesn't resonate with the majority of American queers. It's gay parenting pablum masquerading behind an assimilationist ideal.
One of the men donated sperm to a lesbian couple and has a biological daughter. The show's one highlight of how complicated LGBT life can be to navigate was when they talked about his "other family." It respectfully pointed out that the little girl had two parents - her moms - and made that distinction in a forthright manner that modeled respect for other families.
Life Is Gritty and Messy
Being queer in America is hardly an easy proposition. We're a diverse and contrary group of people because we encompass every ethnic group, religious belief, and political party. While there were a few mutterings when CNN announced they would do Gay In America as a multi-part series instead of one multi-hour show, this is the only realistic way to look at our community in any meaningful way.
Gary & Tony Have A Baby is hardly gritty and compelling television news reporting. It is so far removed from the average viewer's reality, that it was foreign even to this gay man. The majority of American queers don't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to form a family.
The show's accompanying press packet says, "These days one of the most radical things a gay person can do is form a traditional family - and that's precisely what they want." The traditional queer family, however, doesn't look a lot like Gary and Tony's.
"Soledad O'Brien follows Gary and Tony on their struggle to have a baby that has a biological and legal connection to both of them," the release says. "But all the medical miracles and legal maneuvering can't guarantee the approval of the people around them... or even a baby."
(Not Your Average) Gay In America
In the 2000 census, 55% of same-sex couple households reported having at least one child under the age of 18 living in the home. This includes families of all sorts, but the bulk of them did not conceive their child through expensive medical procedures only available to a privileged few.
Continuing the myths that all gay men are wealthy, white and self-obsessed does nothing to validate the thousands of gay fathers around the nation who struggle with more pressing issues than picking among the dozens of prospective egg donors. Where are the fathers who had children with wives they love(d), the men who had children as a desperate attempt at proving their heterosexuality, the adoptive fathers, foster fathers, step fathers, or grandfathers?
Where are the lesbian and transgender parents? What about class, race and religious issues that surround parenting? How about issues like child support, custody cases, and how a judge's personal prejudices can influence their decisions?
After being roundly criticized for ignoring LGBT issues in their Black In America series and thereby perpetuating the myth that being gay is a "white problem," CNN's Gay In America has only served to continue a dangerous mythology that doesn't actually look at gay parenting as much as it does one couple's quest to have their perfect child.
The show would have been better served by weaving a variety of LGBT parents into the mix instead of focusing so exclusively on this one couple.
This is not "Gay In America." It's "Gay In Gary & Tony's World."
The show airs Thursday night at 8pm Eastern.
(Crossposted from my home blog, Bilerico Project. Come visit me there to see why both the Washington Post and the Advocate named us one of the top 10 LGBT political blogs in the nation. Image via Boondoggle)