TV's Disappointing Gay Dads

Queer families are more visible in pop culture than ever. But is there anything real about the way they're portrayed?

ABC; AP Images; NBC

The 2012 fall TV season may be remembered as the season the gay fathers stormed primetime. According to The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation there are a record 111 openly LGBT characters on TV and a number of these are fathers. In ABC's Emmy-winning Modern Family, now in its fourth season, ensemble cast members Mitch and Cam are the same-sex parents of an adopted daughter. And this fall, NBC introduced The New Normal about a gay couple, Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha), who decide to start a family with the help of a surrogate mother.

I was raised by a single gay father in the 1970s and '80s. When I was a kid, the only LGBT characters I found on weekly primetime comedy were performed by straight characters desperate for real estate. Jack (John Ritter) played limp-wristed so he could live with two girls on Three's Company, and on Bosom Buddies, Kip (Tom Hanks) and Henry (Peter Scolari) donned dresses so they could get an apartment in a cheap, women-only building. Back then, I thought I was the only one in the world with a gay parent, and felt so isolated that I pushed myself into the closet, eager to hide my out-and-proud dad.

After the battles the LGBT movement has fought these last 40 years, are these representations the ones to celebrate?

I was curious to see The New Normal. Created by Ryan Murphy, the maestro behind Glee and American Horror Story, it's the first network show to put gay dads front and center; NBC even cheekily billed the show as "the post-modern family." The pilot starts off promising. In a video message to his baby, Bryan looks lovingly into the camera and says, " to show you how desperately you were wanted." We later flashback to the moment when Bryan knew he wanted to be a father, while shopping at Barneys. "Oh. My. God. That is the cutest thing I've ever seen. I must have it!" he exclaims. We think he is looking at an item of clothing and then see he's locked eyes with an adorable baby being pushed in a stroller. In recalling the moment to his partner, David, he explains, "When I saw that miniature person—whose skin was flawless, by the way—I really got it. I want us to have baby clothes and a baby to wear them." "You can't return a baby to Barney's," David tartly replies. David's the gay "straight man" in the couple, a grounded counterpoint to Bryan's flamboyant material girl. I had to wonder: After the battles the LGBT movement has fought these last 40 years, are these representations the ones to celebrate?

I understand that characters like Bryan are often blown out of proportion to fit the conventions of sitcom. In Modern Family, Mitch and Cam represent only one of many loveable stereotypes that fuel the show's comedic success. Predictably fussy Mitch and overdramatic Cam are no more clichéd—nor less endearing—than Gloria, the much-younger, busty, thickly-accented Latina dimwit married to Mitch's dad. But you do have to wonder: Did the mothers and fathers of the same-sex movement—the down-on-their heels transvestites who pushed back police at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, the men and women who sparked the 1979 White Night riots in San Francisco—get beat up for... this?

Yes, I realize we are talking about fictional characters on primetime network comedy, but when same-sex marriage is on the ballot in four states next week, representation of gay families in the media is important.

My dad was married to my mother when he came out, with a child on the way. That didn't stop him from founding a chapter of the Gay Liberation Front and marching in a dress down the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, hardly a "sissy" act in 1970. After my mother died three years later, he moved us to San Francisco, where as a critic and editor, he nurtured a community of writers who explored issues of sexuality and identity in their work. Before he died of AIDS in 1992, friends said my father used to urge young writers and artists to take themselves seriously. Not just to have fun but to create something of cultural importance, to contribute to civilization. To be gay wasn't just to be attracted to someone of the same gender; it was to align yourself with a history of outcasts and renegades, people like Oscar Wilde and Allen Ginsberg, who took countercultural stands, often at great risk to their lives or careers, all in an effort to be true to themselves.

What feels "true" in the world of The New Normal? The tender kisses seem as natural as the kisses between straight TV characters, which is a great advance. But it's hard to believe in the love between the two characters when one hopes for a child that's skinny enough to fit the Marc Jacobs baby line and the other is a sensible "gay-necologist" who's never heard of Grey Gardens and likes to play games of pick-up basketball with his buddies from the hospital.

I'm also troubled by the couple's conspicuous affluence. Yes, there's the stereotype of the dual income gay professionals. David's a doctor. Bryan works in TV. Naturally they live in a beautiful LA home and look like Banana Republic models! But I get the feeling that the world of The New Normal is made palatable because of this wealth. David and Bryan don't blink at the $35,000 it costs to hire their surrogate Goldie (Georgia King). And after falling for her and her adorable daughter (Bebe Wood, a dead ringer for the girl in Little Miss Sunshine) they buy the mother a suit (to fulfill her dream of becoming a lawyer) and invite the pair to live with them in a wing of their home. Of course they'll be good fathers—they're already providers! This hardly reflects the reality of most gay parents. A recent study of US census data cited in the New York Times found that "Black or Latino gay couples are twice as likely as whites to be raising children" and are "are also more likely than their white counterparts to be struggling economically."

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Alysia Abbott is the author of Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father. She lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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