Finding some variety in gay TV relationships

by Andrea Shea / Pop Columnist • January 26, 2012

Homosexual characters on mainstream narrative television can have it rough. Gay men are  often rampantly pigeon-holed into borderline offensive stereotypes (the pinky-out cosmo-sipping oh-my-god shopping buddy divas certainly exist, but hardly speak for all), and lesbians are practically nonexistent. Save for cheap “hot girl-on-girl action” gags, gay women are almost never called upon for participation, often left floating in the endless ether of TV limbo. 

In recent years, however, a small handful of shows have taken steps to circumvent these tropes — and for the most part, succeeded. Slowly but surely, gay TV characters of both sexes are gaining fleshed-out identities instead of one-dimensional stereotypes, with strong plot lines and story arcs unanchored to sexual orientation. And while this is all well and good, there are still a few kinks to be ironed out, specifically in the portrayal of the homosexual relationship.

Say you’re watching a show in which a straight female character meets a straight male character. Generally, your first reaction isn’t, “They’re totally gonna bone.” Sure, context clues might lead you to this conclusioneventually — a flirty laugh, invitation to coffee or dinner, breaking the sacred “touch barrier” — but you’d often reserve your judgment until the show presents you with more concrete evidence. This is rarely the case for homosexual relationships. The second two gay characters share a scene on the small screen, I’d pretty much bet it’s on. Take my word for it, they’ll be locking lips within three episodes.

There’s a whole lot more diversity to be found in TV’s heterosexual interactions. Alias’ Sydney Bristow spends most of her on-screen time surrounded by straight males: her boss Sloane, partner Dixon, archenemy Sark, and platonic friends Will, Marshall, and Weiss. But it’s only her boyfriend, Vaughn, who has an ongoing relationship with Sydney, and — short of a single one-night stand with Will — at no point is a viewer set up to expect trysts with any other character. 

Similarly, Penny of Big Bang Theory fame keeps company with a gaggle of straight guy geeks that she considers her close friends and cohorts, but she’s hardly slept her way through the main cast. The real chemistry exists between Penny and Leonard alone.

Now compare that with Pretty Little Liars’ lesbian character Emily Fields. In the pilot, Emily meets a girl named Maya who just moved in across the street, and also happens to be gay. They are attracted to each other and begin a relationship. Fair enough, but once Maya takes her leave of the show, another lesbian comes on the scene — Emily’s swim teammate Paige. In her initial episodes, Paige is closeted and takes out her jealousy and aggression on openly-gay, star-swimmer Emily, going so far as to nearly drown her in the school pool. Usually a deal-breaker, to say the least. But shortly thereafter, Paige reveals herself by kissing Emily and — wait for it — they decide to date.

Because what’s a little water-boarding between lesbians? There can’t only be two viable gay women to choose from in all of Rosewood, Penn. In reality, Emily should (and likely would) be able to look at Paige, shake her head and say, “No thanks, you’re out of your damn mind.” If Emily’s best friend Hanna could reject potential love interest Lucas simply because she just wasn’t that into him, then Emily herself should, at the very least, get the right to turn down a girl who tried to drown her.

This problem finds its roots right back at the start of gay characters on television: Show runners have previously been criticized for desexualizing gay characters to curb the offense of ignorant viewers. But now some have gone too far in the opposite direction and turned every scene with more than one gay character into a love written in the stars. Television rarely allows ifs in their portrayal of gay relationships, only whens — an ignorant and inaccurate assumption that implies homosexuals are such a scarcity that the group as a whole is desperate enough to drop all standards and flying-tackle-hump anything with the correct body parts and orientation. And that’s an equal — if not greater — degree of marginalization. 

There are, of course, shows doing it right. Modern Family’s Cameron and Mitchell keep company with a host of gay friends, and Max Blum of Happy Endings has casually dated a fair amount of men. But these examples are few and far between — even Greek’s celebrated Omega Chi brother Calvin Owens actively pursued every gay man with whom he shared even a trivial glance. And until homosexual characters get the same diverse relationship treatment that heterosexual characters have enjoyed for years, we can never hope to truly get a realistic portrayal of gay men and women on television.