TV's Disappointing Gay Dads

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

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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, "This...is 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."

For all their wealth and good-looks, though, David and Bryan are still looked down on by Goldie's bigoted grandmother (played to the hilt by Ellen Barkin), their plans for a family called "disgusting" by the fanny-pack wearing dad they encounter at the outlet mall. These confrontations are orchestrated to evoke sympathy and righteous anger but too often feel staged. And that poor unborn baby moves from coveted clothing mannequin to political prop.

It's a good thing to have more openly gay men and women on TV. But if these characters are consistently portrayed like Mitch and Cam, "just like us," or like David and Bryan, "what we want to be," is pop culture truly moving toward acceptance of queer culture? Or are these shows merely evidence of the assimilation of gay men and women into straight culture, and the disappearance of the radical queer culture that was so exciting a generation ago?

The most vibrant gay man you'll see on a screen this fall won't be found on TV but in David France's filmed history of the ACT UP movement, How to Survive a Plague. Bob Rafsky quit his job as a PR executive at Howard Rubenstein (he'd represented Donald Trump before going on disability for AIDS) in order to become an activist. In a New York Times op-ed he wrote, "There's not much to do except to keep fighting the epidemic, and those whose actions or inactions prolong it, until I get too sick to fight."

Chairing the ACT Up Media Committee, Rafsky was involved with many of the group's most memorable stunts, including a Kiss-In at St. Vincent's Hospital to protest violence against the LGBT and AIDS communities. These are thrilling actions to behold, because they remind us of a time when gay men and women lived outside the fold of acceptable society, and how bitterly and powerfully they came together to fight the establishment in an effort to save each other from the death sentence of AIDS.

Rafsky was also a dad. Among the most affecting scenes in an already affecting movie are those between him and his young daughter, Sara. We see them celebrating birthdays and dancing together in his sunny New York apartment. Rafsky's face beaming, he tells us in voiceover: "It's the only really successful love affair of my life." This love is made more poignant as we see him deteriorate over the course of the film.

Rafsky's best known for a moment in the spring of 1992, when he heckled candidate Bill Clinton at a campaign rally in New York City,"What are you going to do about AIDS?" Clinton responded, "I feel your pain." The televised exchange led to AIDS becoming an issue in the '92 election. During the Clinton administration, protease inhibitors were developed, transforming AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable disease. These advances couldn't save Rafsky, who died of AIDS in 1993, but his story illustrates the legacy of political activism, a legacy to be proud of. At the time of his death at age 47, he was writing an autobiography about his work as an AIDS activist tentatively titled A Letter to Sara.

The gay fathers on TV today can make us laugh, but can they inspire? If they can't inspire can they at least not embody embarrassing stereotypes? Thinking about the latest crop of gay dads on television I can't help but recall a popular chant from the Act Up demonstrations whenever someone was arrested or harassed: "The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!" The irony is that, too often, the world wasn't watching then. But now, thanks to these primetime characters, people are definitely watching. They just aren't seeing much of the truth.

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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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