It was 1993.
Andrew Sullivan had only recently written The New Republic cover story introducing many Americans to the very idea of gay marriage; it would be nearly a decade before any state would legalize it. The notion of "marriage equality," furiously debated before the Supreme Court and among the nation last week, was a wholly foreign concept.
Indeed, the gay rights debate that year had concerned President Bill Clinton's campaign pledge to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. We all know how that ended: with a terribly flawed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that wouldn't be repealed for another 17 years.
Along came Seinfeld, initially derided by critics, then ultimately embraced by the show's writers, as a "show about nothing."
Yet, in many instances, it mattered a whole lot more.
As I have argued in this space before, Seinfeld's exposure of Judaism to Middle America -- along with a handful of other TV shows such as Northern Exposure, Beverly Hills 90210 and Friends -- had a significant impact on Jewish Americans. We could now hold our heads up a little higher, feel a bit more comfortable to publicly pronounce our faith. We were now the tellers of Jewish jokes, alternatively wry and self-deprecating, instead of divisive and mean-spirited. It was a phenomenon that Jonathan Alter -- in his famous 2000 Newsweek cover piece heralding Joe Lieberman's history-making Vice-Presidential candidacy -- labeled the "Seinfeldizing of America."
And so too did the show help raise awareness of LGBT issues -- and expose the toxicity of bigotry toward the gay and lesbian community. The most memorable example, the 1993 episode entitled "The Outing," featured a young NYU reporter mistakenly thinking that Jerry Seinfeld and best friend George Costanza were actually gay lovers. It was a charge that both of them furiously denied, followed quickly with the disclaimer: "Not that there's anything wrong with that..."
Of course, the show is horribly dated. Jerry and George's palpable fear of being "outed" to the public, to their mothers, wouldn't be as visceral today given the progress of the last two decades. Kramer's physical reaction to being considered part of a gay cadre isn't nearly as funny right now as it was in 1993.
But despite the overreaction to the charge, and despite the propagation of gay stereotypes -- Jerry's a target because he's "single, thin and neat" -- it was really a groundbreaking moment for LGBT rights. Every character that is confronted with the issue -- even Jerry and George's moms -- repeats the catchphrase "Not that there's anything wrong with that..."
Best of all, a uniformed soldier makes a quick cameo, thanking Jerry for his courage in "coming out," adding that it gave him the strength to reveal his own sexuality, even though it meant his likely discharge. The quick joke revealed the absurdity of the military's discriminatory policy to a national audience.
Equally as important, it confirmed the heroic and historic practice, first championed by Harvey Milk, to encourage more and more gays and lesbians to come out of the closet -- in order to spark the realization by the rest of us that friends and even loved ones were gay -- thereby helping ensure that the stigma would wear off, so that it would became politically and personally unacceptable to preach gay hatred.
So happy 20th anniversary to Seinfeld's "The Outing." You helped the country take a small step toward tolerance, fairness and equality. Even if you broke the sitcom's promise of being a "show about nothing."
Not that there's anything wrong with that...
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