As everyone from Reuters to Maureen Dowd has simultaneously noticed, America is having a homosexual moment.
"Gay issues hit center stage in '03" was the headline over a Reuters story last week that began: "It's been a good summer for gays in America as court rulings, media coverage, and TV shows have made being homosexual more mainstream than ever."
A few days later, Dowd took the conceit of one of those TV shows, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and imagined a queer makeover of President Bush and his circle, whose obvious discomfort with homosexuality is looking decidedly antique. Quoting a gay political-journalist friend, Dowd wrote that Dick Cheney could use a pierced ear with a diamond stud, or "a body-hugging black T-shirt, just for the pure sport of it." As for Bush himself, Dowd's friend suggested it's time for Botox, chest waxing, and some lip gloss.
It turns out the gay summer of '03 is also an excellent time to note the tics and tendencies of the modern media. The gay coverage has thrown into relief norms of journalistic behavior that have become so routine, you could write up a set of rules. In fact, why don't we pour ourselves a nice cool Mojito—the drink that's so happening this summer in media circles, it's practically gay—and do just that?
1. No Pop Culture, No Story. The Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws. Gay marriage became legal in Canada, and some American states might follow suit. Howard Dean, the Democratic candidate to beat, is gay-friendly. George Bush and the Vatican are not. And the Episcopal Church is at war with itself over a gay bishop-elect. But you know what? None of that would amount to squat newswise—a few days each on the front page, max—without a Hollywood angle.
This is kind of sad. The gay-rights debate is intrinsically as interesting and important as the civil-rights debate of 40 years ago. But interesting and important are not enough anymore. You've got to have a movie, a sitcom, or a hot new cable drama—preferably one that upper-middle-class urbanites watch obsessively over pasta and Chianti—before the whole thing gets certified and turned into a top-shelf story.
The main reason the gay question has become huge lately in the media is that it has pop-culture certification in spades. Watch the news coverage and note how pop references are used to frame and juice up the core gay-rights story. Reuters and Dowd do it, and so does practically everyone else. When you come across a major gay-rights story that doesn't—for example, a gay-marriage story that ran last week on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, barely mentioning pop culture—it feels weirdly incomplete. The whole time you're reading it, you're waiting for the movie stars, so you can know the news Really Matters. We're all Hollywood zombies now.
2. The Trend Is Your Friend. If you're a journalist it is, anyway. Homosexuality has been around for some time, yet suddenly in the last few months it's given rise to the most fascinating new trends. In late June, for example, The New York Times ran on the front of its Sunday Style section a piece on "metrosexuals," which the paper defined as "straight urban men willing, even eager, to embrace their feminine sides." The story went so far as to predict that "America may be on the verge of a metrosexual moment," and as evidence it cited the about-to-launch TV show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Sure enough, the metrosexual moment happened, thanks in no small part to The Times' returning to it a few weeks later, in a prominent culture piece headlined, "NBC Joins In to Help Hapless Heterosexuals," which gave the show itself a nice boost. Synthetic media trends have a funny way of fulfilling themselves.
3. Gild Every Lily. When the media are riding a giant story like this one, they can be relied on to throw caution to the wind and start buying into pure silliness. Thus, homosexuals are not just human beings deserving of all the rights and privileges of other human beings. They're now superhuman, capable of stunning feats no hetero could hope to achieve.
In a health column of July 1, Times columnist Jane Brody noted that there's extensive research showing that "children raised by gay parents are not significantly different from those raised by straight parents." Fair enough, but that's not all. A new study reveals "that if anything, gay parents might do better, having gone to considerable trouble to become parents and being determined to raise children who respect themselves and others while remaining tolerant of diversity."
Got that? Gay men and women are not like other parents—who, last time I checked, were good, bad, and mediocre, depending on the individual. No, gays actually have an edge. To report on such a study is legitimate. To report on it uncritically, as Brody did, is absurd. In their enthusiasm for a noble cause, media people often wind up undermining it.
4. Coverage Has Consequences. And sometimes the more we hype and glam up a story, lard it with pop-culture allusions and suspicious data, the more skeptical the public grows about it. Last week, Gallup reported that two polls it conducted in July "showed a significant drop in the percentage of Americans supporting legalized homosexual relations." Media people ran around trying to reconcile how, in the summer of gayness, this could possibly have happened. Such a mystery.