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A Whole New World for Gay Youth

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The struggle for LGBT rights continues, and, I suspect, will continue for some time. But what is often lost during the battles of the "culture war" is how much has changed already.

I remember, around 13 years old, reading the word "homosexual" in the dictionary. It is the first time that I knew of the word. I heard insulting words but was never clear as to why they were insulting, or what they meant. It was the first time I realized that there were other gay people around. My reasoning was, "If there is a word for it, it must mean there are others."

A few years later, I remember seeing a photo in Life magazine of a "holy union" ceremony being conducted in a gay church. To my knowledge, that was the first time I saw a picture of someone who I knew was gay. As a kid, I just wasn't exposed to anything, clearly identified as "gay" by anyone.

The closest to that was Liberace. And he was so over-the-top and clownish that I never thought he was what it meant to be gay. Certainly he was never identified on television as gay and went to great lengths, including lawsuits, to claim otherwise. Since I was young enough to not know the stereotype of gay people I just never realized he was gay until years later.

When Hot l Baltimore aired in 1975, it had a gay couple, but the show didn't last long and was barely noticed. It was really in Soap, two years later, that we saw the first recurring gay character, played by Billy Crystal.

Hollywood was barely better than this. Few films portrayed gay people, and those that did often had them killing themselves (The Children's Hour), or being killed (Suddenly Last Summer). Even then, such films rarely identified the character as gay; they merely suggested it in vague terms. An exception was Dirk Bogarde's 1961 film, Victim, about a blackmailing scheme that used the illegality of homosexuality to shake down gay men. Bogarde played a married, closeted gay man who fought back against the blackmail ring. But Victim was a British production, not from Hollywood.

What I remember from Hollywood was Max Baer's film version of Bobbie Gentry's song "Ode to Billy Joe." All the song told us was that Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The film, starring Robbie Benson, fleshed it out. We learn that Billy Joe is tormented about a sexual experience he's had with his male boss at the sawmill. The town, however, assumes that he impregnated the 15-year-old Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynnis O'Connor). Hartley, at the end of the film, packs her bags and slips out, to keep this illusion alive. As she crosses the bridge, she runs into the sawmill owner, who is coming to clear her reputation. Bobbie Lee points out to him that isn't acceptable, because "we certainly can't have people believin' that Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the bridge because of a man--can we?"

In 1982, three hot young stars appeared together in a film that shook things up just a bit. Kate Jackson, Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean co-starred in Making Love. Jackson and Ontkean are "happily" married until Hamlin enters the picture, and the Ontkean character deals with his sexual orientation. When Ontkean and Hamlin shared a kiss, theater audiences exploded with shock. At its height of popularity, only 380 theaters would touch the film that earned an "R" rating simply because of the topic.

Today, television characters who are gay are a dime a dozen. More importantly, their sexual orientation does not define their character. The excellent, and to-be-missed, United States of Tara has father Max (John Corbett ) asking son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) about his relationship with a girl. Max stutters a bit and says, "Hey, I'm not prying, OK? It's none of my business. I'm gonna run to Grandstand for burgers, you want anything?" Marshall responds with, "I'm gay." And Max says, "Good... so you want anything?" Marshall's sexual orientation, in essence, is as much an "issue" as getting burgers.

Certainly, in Ugly Betty,, the sexual orientation of Justin (Mark Indelicato) was always known and never an issue; the other characters accepted Justin before he accepted himself. And, I suspect, so did most of the audience. And then there's Glee.

These cultural shifts have been important. People have become used to the idea that homosexuals are people like them, not mysterious, hidden monsters lurking around darkened corners, looking to snatch children for nefarious purposes. The "closet" reinforced the public's fears and allowed them to flourish, which is precisely why the religious right wishes to push gay people back into hiding. It is also the reason they are going to fail in their crusade.

We now have a generation with gay kids who have always known that they are not alone, and they can't go back into the closet; they were never there to begin with. Even before dealing with their own sexual orientation, they knew there were others. This is well exemplified when, according to Kate Winslet, her 7-year-old son Joe said, "One day I will have a girlfriend or a boyfriend." He wanted to know from her, "Which would you prefer?" Kate says she responded, "My love, that would be entirely up to you, and it doesn't make any difference to me."

Joe, if he does turn out to be gay, isn't growing up thinking he's alone in the world. He knows that whatever turns out to be his situation, he has options and rights. It really is a whole new world. And it's a good one.