The number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender recurring characters on mainstream cable has seen a year-over-year increase of 40 per cent. Queer and anti-bullying anthems are a fist-pumping fixture on the radio. And celebrity “coming out” stories that, just five years ago, guaranteed a cover story are now routine tabloid footnotes (sorry, Jonathan Knight).
“It’s showing the world that we’re people, too, and that we go through all of the same struggles and emotions of `normal’ relationships and families,” said Lisa Knapik, 25, a lesbian who lives in Calgary.
Knapik, whose five-year coming-out journey began at age 19, credits such TV shows as Modern Family – which features gay parents she describes as “no more crazy of a family unit than the rest of the couples on the show” – and the It Gets Better awareness campaign, spurred by the 2010 suicide of a bullied teen, as torchbearer, reports Misty Harris.
"They’ve helped so many people who are not out, or who are struggling with who they are, to have the courage to . . . walk with their heads high."
But for every gay-positive storyline on Glee, there’s a Tracy Morgan or Kobe Bryant trotting out homophobic tropes (Morgan “joked” that if his son spoke to him effeminately, he’d stab him to death, while Bryant was fined $100,000 by the NBA for calling a referee a “f—— faggot.”)
In a recently published study of 3,700 Canadian high school students, 70 per cent of respondents reported hearing “gay” used as a pejorative on a daily basis. Forty-eight per cent heard “faggot,” “lezbo” and “dyke” just as frequently.
Though some institutions are starting to explicitly address these issues, their efforts don’t go unchecked. This was recently the case in Burnaby, B.C., where the school district was accused by a parents’ group of “trying to program” youngsters with a new Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity policy.
“Are you telling me . . . that there will be `junior GSAs’ (gay-straight alliances) to manipulate students – who aren’t even clear yet on where babies come from – not just to tolerate but to actually `celebrate’ sexual diversity?” said Gordon World, father to a fourth-grader. “Are you people out of your minds?”
A Social Psychological & Personality Science study published in June found the benefits of coming out – which include less anger, less depression and greater self-esteem – appear to be limited to supportive settings.
The study also found that gay people tend to out themselves slowly and systematically, deciding who they tell based on how supportive they think they’ll be.
Co-author Richard Ryan says the latter finding makes the recent upsurge in gay-positive politics and pop culture all the more vital, says the article in The Montreal Gazette.
“I can’t imagine it makes it anything but easier to come out, because it’s creating more exposure,” says Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. “The data has shown that with exposure, stigma tends to decrease.”
Of course, not all pop cultural depictions are equal. And Frederik Dhaenens, of Belgium’s Ghent University, says “visibility alone is not sufficient.”
“Audiences, both gay and straight, are in need of round, complex representations of gay characters,” says Dhaenens, who studies queer portrayals on TV.
“It’s important that the gay representations are not part of a spectacle media is offering . . . (or are) used to simply lure audiences.”
Featuring four gay finalists on the summer talent-show The Voice, and awarding Archie Comics’ first openly gay character his own series (debuting February 2012), are widely considered signposts of progress. Reality shows on which sexy young straight women swap spit for ratings? Not so much.
“It’s easier than it’s ever been . . . but it’s not perfect,” says Carson McConnell, 20, an Edmonton woman who identifies as asexual.
“There are still queer kids getting kicked out by their parents after coming out, and `gay’ is still used as an insult in high schools. . . . There (also) seems to be this idea floating around that it’s the queer community’s job to teach straight people how not to be prejudiced. As if we’re not busy enough.”
Overall, scholars report that the culture is becoming more welcoming and respectful.
Vancouver’s Brian Burtch, who alongside Rebecca Haskell co-authored Get that Freak: Homophobia and Transphobia in High Schools, said that true acceptance has to go beyond “tolerance.”
“Tolerance was an important step, but we need to go farther; it’s not much of a compliment to say `I can tolerate you,”’ says Burtch, a criminologist and associate member of the gender, sexuality and women’s studies department at Simon Fraser University.
“We’ve come a very long way. . . . But there’s quite a long way to go.”