11/17/2009 10:15 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Ugly Betty's Best Action Hero

I love the show Ugly Betty. There are lots of pleasant aspects about this show but the one that is most meaningful to me is the character Justin, Betty's 14-year old nephew. Justin is portrayed brilliantly by Mark Indelicato.

Justin is the first obviously gay kid I have seen on television in my entire life. It's unclear whether Justin knows he's gay but he definitely knows that he's different. He's aware that the world will probably judge that difference harshly and at the same time aware that to have integrity he has to be himself: which means being obsessed with fashion and celebrity, being dramatic and entertaining, and generally filling out the meaning of flamboyant. The boldest move of the show has been to assign Marc, Betty's backstabbing but ultimately loveable colleague, the role of Justin's older and wiser advisor. In other words, an adult gay man gives advice to a gay teen on how to deal with life. Transgressive and brave.

Last week's episode (Season 4, Episode 6) offered a view of what life can be like for some gay kids, some of the time. Hatching a plan to become popular, or at least marginally acceptable socially, Justin buddies up to the cheerleader/mean girls contingent and helps them choreograph their homecoming routine. It's his moment in the sun, until a cheerleader alerts the Suarez family that something bad is going to go down. Justin indeed gets noticed by the whole school - when as a cruel joke his classmates elect him Homecoming Queen. What turns this Carrie-like humiliation around is that Justin chooses neither to freeze or to flee but, in his own way, to fight. Taking Marc's advice to get ahead of any jokes made about him, Justin goes up to the podium and take his honor - and in doing so instructs his classmates in how to interpret this event. Making fun both of himself and of the proceedings, he demonstrates to his classmates that he won't participate in killing his own self-esteem. Instead he presents the crown and flowers to his mom, who lost out on being homecoming queen herself fifteen years ago because of her pregnancy with Justin. In that gesture he dictates what is important - his sense of self and the loyalty of his family - and what is not - the scattered hatreds of his classmates. (Play by play description of the episode here.)

I once had my own kind of Justin episode. When I was a freshman in high school, I decided to run for a student council office. While I didn't think I could get one of the big offices, I calculated that a lesser office like class treasurer might be within reach. The election kicked off with an assembly during which the candidates presented short speeches to our 300 or so classmates. Things flowed normally and then it was my turn. No more than ten seconds into my speech, a guy named Pete Tiano, whom I had never actually met but who apparently knew something about me, loudly started calling out my name, chanting "Mikey, look at Mikey," in a shrill, mean, make-fun-of-the-fag voice. Students laughed - perhaps a minority, but enough -- and Pete Tiano kept going. Why? I have no idea. To get attention, to express disdain, to be funny - who knows? My heart pounded, I felt dizzy, and I confusedly tried to figure out which of the three hundred faces in front of me was doing this even as I concentrated on blocking it out enough to finish my speech. Amidst this, I wondered why no adult was intervening. Isn't that what adults were supposed to do? But no one did.

I was in a daze for the rest of the day and walked the three miles home rather than take the bus. In a further embarrassment, I theorized that there might be some small benefit since I might get a sympathy vote. But, no, Vicki Roundtree won and that was it for my student council ambitions. It tells you something about how I experienced this that I never told my mom. How do you say, "I got heckled as a fag in front of the school?" especially when probably the last thing I wanted to be in 1978 was gay?

I am pretty sure that things are a lot better nowadays for gay kids, or kids who might be gay, or just anyone who is different. But people can still be mean, especially when they're young. Some people suffer for their behavior, and some suffer for their identity. So life presents challenges and kids have to depend on themselves.

Ugly Betty's Justin has the great advantage of a loving family who, even if they don't understand what to do in every situation, affirm who he is. But ultimately it is Justin who is the hero. He exhibits a kind of courage that few of us have; I certainly didn't have it as his age. He's an inspiration to my childhood self, and to my adult self as well.