Some of America's favorite couples are gay men in relationships: Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family and Kurt and Blaine on Glee. And this TV season brings more that the networks hope you'll love: Brian and David on the heavily advertised The New Normal, and Louis and Wyatt on Partners. But something is missing: there are no African-American gay male couples at all on mainstream TV. Gay couples on TV allow gay men to see themselves reflected in the larger culture, and normalize them to others. Where are the role models for African American gay male couples on TV?
In five separate studies, Professor Edward Schiappa and his University of Minnesota colleagues have found that the presence of gay characters on television programs decreases prejudices among viewers, providing a forum for the general public to observe and interact with the lives of gay men. Exposure to these images normalizes gay couples, so much so that Ann Romney reports being a fan of Modern Family (although apparently not a fan of gay marriage).
A media revolution in the portrayal of gay men and women has occurred over the past 15 years. We have evolved from a time when being gay was unmentionable on TV, to the inclusion of gay characters as stock comic stereotypes, and are now seeing gay males and females as central characters in TV programming. For a long time they could be gay; they just couldn't show daily tribulations and mainstream issues of same -ex couples. Now they can, but apparently they can't be a black gay couple (though I'm focusing on men, the small screen isn't exactly packed with African-American lesbians either).
True, cable channels have featured gay African-American males in and out of stable relationships. The unforgettable and violent Omar Little on HBO's The Wire was gay in an extremely homophobic milieu but he wasn't celibate: he had three partners over the series' run. Logo's Noah's Arc gave us the lives and loves of four gay black men and included a married couple. But these shows were featured on channels that are not accessible to a large proportion of the population, and in the case of Logo, catered to a largely gay audience that doesn't need persuading of the existence of same sex couples of color. These characters would never have seen the light of day if planned for the coveted Thursday night slot on NBC.
According to the CDC, between 2006 and 2009, HIV infection among African-American men who have sex with men between 13-29 years old increased by 48 %. The reasons for this dramatic increase are not easy to parse out but certainly the double whammy of racism within the gay community and homophobia within the African-American community play a part. The secrecy and shame around homosexuality contributes to invisibility. An invisible man believes that he has no need for health care or safer sex, or doesn't imagine he can form forming a healthy relationship .What if these young men saw images of guys like them -- or older -- living and loving safely and productively? As we have seen, over time, that could be a key part of inspiring different behavior and eliminating bias. Seeing oneself reflected in the larger culture is a crucial part of self-acceptance as well as acceptance by others.
I'm not suggesting that giving Mitchell and Cam an African-American gay male couple as neighbors will end AIDS. But just as The Mary Tyler Moore Show helped make the world more comfortable for single, urban women, and The Cosby Show introduced us to an upper middle class African-American family, showing black gay male couples on TV will change minds -- and over time, it could help save lives.
This op-ed was written in association with The OpEd Project