Billy Crystal and Useful Homophobia

Even an actor who helped break down barriers for gay characters on television can still be grossed out by them.

David McNew/Reuters

To understand just how much progress there's been when it comes to depictions of gay people in popular culture, it helps to read part—part—of Billy Crystal’s comments at the Television Critics Association on Sunday. Asked about his role on the ‘70s sitcom Soap, he talked about how “it was awkward and it was tough” to be the actor playing one of the first gay characters on network TV:

I did it in front of a live audience, and there were times where I would say to Bob, “I love you,” and the audience would laugh nervously, because, you know, it’s a long time ago, that I’d feel this anger. I wanted to stop the tape and go, “What is your problem?”

When some of the most-watched new network dramas of the past year (How to Get Away With Murder, Empire) prominently feature gay characters, when one of the most popular ongoing sitcoms (Modern Family) revolves around men married to each other, when an out gay man (Neil Patrick Harris) is enlisted to host the Oscars, it's good to remember when there was a time not too long ago when depicting any sort of same-sex affection was met with nervous laughter on set.

That's not why Crystal's kicking up publicity right now, though. As part of his TCA comments on Soap, he also suggested that he thought the march of progress had gone too far: “I’ve seen some stuff recently on TV in different kinds of shows where the language or the explicit sex is really you know, sometimes I get it, and sometimes I just feel like, ‘Ah, that’s too much for me.’” The implication as a lot of people saw it: Crystal objects to the presence of gay love scenes on TV.

He quickly issued a statement saying that he had been referring to explicit sex of all kinds, heterosexual and not, and that he didn’t mean to imply that gay sex in particular was being “shove[d] in our face.” In an interview he gave to an Xfinity writer, he also provided the less-than-clarifying elaboration about disliking TV sex depictions “when I feel it’s ‘You’re going to like my lifestyle,’ no matter what it is.”

If Crystal says he didn't really want to single out gay stories on TV for rebuke, there's no reason not to believe him. He appears to earnestly believe himself to be an open-minded ally to LGBT people. But that's exactly why his comments feel so revealing, and possibly important. At TCA, he was asked a question about his specific experience playing a gay character. He was not asked about sex. But that’s what he almost immediately began talking about—explicit sex, and the feeling of being weirded out by it. You can’t know his thought process for sure, but it appeared, at least, like “gay” was associated with “gross” on some level to him. This is how homophobia often works—insidiously, in the gut rather than the intellect. And that's precisely why so many people think it's important that depictions of gay life become, to Crystal's disapproval, an "everyday thing"—to fight the socially ingrained attitude that gay life is deviant.

In a recent interview, the comedian Kevin Hart said he didn’t think he could ever play a gay character because his insecurities about how he’d be perceived would undercut his performance. Coming from another self-proclaimed friend of gay people, that’s a disheartening remark for anyone who thinks insecurity about sexuality part of the same phenomenon that causes discrimination, suicide, youth homelessness, and murder. But it's also, as Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak wrote, a striking and helpful piece of honesty. Crystal unwittingly seems to have provided something similar: A sign of how far gay acceptance has come, and how far it has yet to go.