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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

What's So Funny About Being Gay?

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We've come a long way from The Odd Couple, the 1965 Broadway hit about two mismatched male roommates and whose premise now feels centuries old -- and not because of the rotary phones and the early Eisenhower décor. Back then, the unspoken possibility of men living together in stereotypical sex roles -- only without the sex -- was funny. It wouldn't have worked if there'd been the slightest suggestion of something more.

We now have that depiction -- or, at least, less subtle intimation -- of "more" to laugh at in a wide variety of current pop culture offerings, including shows like Glee, Modern Family, and Happy Endings, and theater productions like The Book of Mormon, all of which include gay characters dealing with very universal issues of love and sex. The hilarious new film adaptation of Rock of Ages features a love story between two of the male leads who confess their feelings for one another to the tune of a REO Speedwagon song. And this fall, Glee creator Ryan Murphy furthers the dialogue with a new NBC sitcom called The New Normal, about two gay men, their baby, and their adorably pushy "baby mama."

We know by now how very key a role mainstream entertainment plays in creating a greater acceptance of gay rights, specifically to marry. Back in May, when Vice President Joe Biden argued in favor of same-sex marriage, he cited Will & Grace as a show that "did more to educate the American public" about gay people than anything else. Indeed, much of the general public's "education" about the lives of gay Americans has come at the hands of television comedy. But by making gay characters something to laugh at, does it also risk making gay humor the only form of gay we can take?

When it comes to sex -- gay or straight -- laughter is often the best medicine. In large part that's because, if you think about it, sex often is laughable. But one challenge we've had in achieving the full acceptance of people who are gay is that the very nature of what we're "accepting" forces us to think about -- and talk about -- someone else's sexual activity. As a family psychologist and gender expert, I've worked with many gay couples and individuals. One mother of a lesbian I knew told me that what disturbed her most about her daughter's sexual orientation was the thought of her having sex with another woman. But what parent wants to imagine a child of whatever inclination having sex? Conversely, what child wants to imagine his or her parent doing the same? So when we do, or when we're forced to, talk about or think about sex, it's often for laughs. That's okay.

Still, it's a good idea to watch out for the type of humor we're using, and whether we're using it more to talk about gay sex than straight sex. The television network TLC recently pulled an episode of its popular Cake Boss reality series, before it aired, once it was revealed (to considerable public uproar) that the show planned to depict a transgender woman as the punch line to a prank setup. That decision came in time. But what if others don't? And what of the messages we're sending about gay love when we make a big deal out of same sex relationships on TV? On most networks, it's still considered somewhat provocative to show two men kissing -- less so, for some reason, for two women. But either way, episodes that feature same sex kissing often come with parental warnings, even when programs that feature the same level of passion between a man and a woman do not.

This discrimination in what we're comfortable seeing -- or imagining -- has real costs. What if Mike McQueary had walked into that locker room and seen Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year-old little girl? Would he have gone home and waited until the next day to report the incident to Coach Joe Paterno -- and not until many days later university officials? Or would he have intervened right then and there? I think we know the answer.

The most fallacious argument against gay marriage is that it's somehow going to jeopardize the straight kind, something that seeing gay couples on TV -- in humorous situations or otherwise -- can help battle. In the course of my research, I've spent a lot of time with lesbian couples and their children, exposure that has made me face my own assumptions, prejudices, and fears about sex that differs from what I know as a straight mother in a long-term marriage. I have seen the utter normality of two-mom families. Indeed, when President Obama announced his support for same sex marriage days after North Carolina voted to ban it, he argued that concern for children is a reason to support, rather than oppose, gay marriage.

The positives coming out of this explosion in gay comedy is that we're heading in the direction of equal opportunity ridicule for all sex. Consider a classic Comedy Central segment in which Ed Helms "reported" that, "gay sex among men has doubled in 10 years... At that rate, in 50 years, 150% of Americans will be gay. That's three out of every two people." That's funnier than The Odd Couple's Felix washing a glass the minute it's put down. Thankfully, gone are the days when no one could take a joke about what might happen in a bed shared by two men or two women. These days, we know gay sex is just as funny, and sometimes tragic, as the other kind.