Tag Archives: lgbt

Girls and Gays: The Uniquely Queer Golden Girls

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the themes of mortality and despair in The Golden Girls. Because the show is so fun to analyze, I decided not to move on just yet. Here I talk about the LGBT material on the show, why it stands out, and why gay fans have been loyal since the show’s premiere.  

As a gay teen watching The Golden Girls, I was surprised at how many gay story lines and characters populated the show. I was watching in the late 90s, when gay visibility on TV was minimal compared to today. The gay content on The Golden Girls wasn’t limited to a typical “very special episode” (although the show had those, too), rather there was a true effort to integrate gay content into the fabric of the show. Dorothy’s college friend and Blanche’s only brother both came out during the series, and the latter returned for another coming-out of sorts later on. Even one-off gay characters who might seem offensive today were usually in on the joke. More often than not, they made jokes at the expense of our leads. I’m thinking of the effeminate, formidable caterer in “Sophia’s Wedding, Part 1,” who memorably dubs Dorothy “Stretch” and even gets in a dig about anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant.

The classic season 2 episode “Isn’t It Romantic?” is a great place to start. Dorothy’s old friend Jean visits the girls after the death of her partner, Pat. The girls, all except Dorothy, assume that Pat was a man. The audience, though, finds out quickly that Jean is a lesbian, in a great, undramatic conversation between Dorothy and Sophia. Blanche and Rose are left in the dark. But as Jean and Rose hit it off, Jean discovers that she’s developing feelings for Rose, and decides to cut her visit short. The showpiece of the episode is the bedroom scene in which Dorothy reveals to her mother, then Blanche, that Jean is in love with Rose. It’s refreshing and clever in every way. Jean is never the butt of the joke. Instead, we’re made to laugh at Blanche’s ignorance (confusing lesbian with Lebanese) and narcissism (her disbelief that Jean could prefer another woman over Blanche). The way McClanahan inflects the word “lesbian” three times, each utterance revealing another nuance, is a sitcom performance for the ages.

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Blanche gets the spotlight again in season 4’s “Scared Straight,” when her baby brother Clayton reveals that he is gay. Clayton comes to Miami intending to come out, but panics and claims instead that he slept with Rose. Predictably, this sparks a mini-war, in which Blanche calls Rose a “cradle snatchin’, empty headed, two-faced dummy.” (Did I mention that Blanche is a gay icon?) Later, all is revealed, and Blanche manages to subdue her self-involvement long enough to accept, or at least begin to tolerate, her brother’s sexuality. The joke was always on one of the girls, to highlight their own hypocrisy: to show that Blanche was not as sophisticated or worldly as she thought, or that even leftist Dorothy was uncomfortable with being called a lesbian. The show never took cheap shots at its gay characters, and in this way, gay audiences could feel in on the joke. Importantly, it also set an example for how other TV shows could address gay story lines without demeaning gay people.

In these episodes, some of the most memorable lines are given to Sophia, whom viewers might expect to be the least progressive about sexuality. Not so. Sophia has this perfectly reasonable response to the reveal of Jean’s sexuality: “Jean is a nice person. She happens to like girls instead of guys. Some people like cats instead of dogs. Frankly, I’d rather live with a lesbian than a cat.” The show always treated Sophia’s big mouth as a powder keg; the girls often cowered in fear at what Sophia might say next. But by bucking expectations here, Sophia gives the audience permission to be progressive. Sophia — the 80-something Italian Catholic immigrant, the one you’d expect to be homophobic — is utterly unperturbed by gay people. It’s a clever joke, of course, the subverting of audience expectation, but make no mistake: it’s also a political statement. It’s the politics of “it’s not a big deal” and “I wouldn’t love you any less.” It’s not revolutionary. But in 1986, gay panic was everywhere. The Christian right stoked the fire with the fear of disease, conflating the contagion of HIV with the threat of homosexuality to children and families. The federal government did its best to ignore the scourge of AIDS, and did little to stop the spread of misinformation and pseudoscience to a scared community. It was a dark and dangerous time for gay Americans. So, that little affirmation of love on a network sitcom — that treatment of coming-out as the terrifying and complex experience it is — may not have been revolutionary, but it certainly was important.

Aside from the explicitly gay stories, The Golden Girls has a queer ethos of sorts. I mentioned in my last piece that the girls represent a “chosen family,” something deeply important to gay culture. LGBT people often choose to seek out new familial bonds if their biological families are hostile or unwelcoming. I’ve always seen “Isn’t It Romantic?” as making a subtle joke about four grown women living together and none of them actually being gay. The community- and family-building of The Golden Girls is not exclusively a gay concept, but probably explains some of the show’s appeal to gay audiences.

The series’ liberal treatment of sex also speaks to LGBT audiences made to feel ashamed of their sexual choices. The sexual revolution had clearly arrived on Richmond St, Miami. The girls were Greatest Generation-ers living in a baby boomer world. Rose and Dorothy were true to their era, revealing early on that their husbands had been their only sexual partners for most of their lives. Blanche, on the other hand, had known, in her words, many, many men. We see the three women pursuing love and sex with openness and honesty, insecurity and vigor. The frank discussions the girls have about orgasms, sexual partners, and condoms, condoms, condoms are familiar and welcomed by gay audiences. I’ve always appreciated the diversity of experience among the women. Rose struggles with deciding whether to sleep with a man for the first time since her husband died. Dorothy knowingly sleeps with a married man. Sophia spends the night with a man and leaves after he won’t return her “I love you.” Each character reserves the right to change her mind about sex, to abstain, or to pursue pleasure without shame. You’d be forgiven if you think The Golden Girls was about old ladies having sex left and right. In reality, though, the show treated women’s love lives with emotional complexity.

We should keep in mind that these are post-menopausal women who still want love and sex. It’s remarkable how infrequently we see that, even now. I think there’s a connection here with gay folks; both gays and elderly women learn to be ashamed or ignore their sexual feelings, and our society in general frowns upon their sexual behavior as odd or abnormal (or just as bad: gross). We expect women of a certain age to close up shop. (To say nothing of 80-year-old men marrying and impregnating younger women.) Gay movements of the 70s and 80s celebrated sex and pleasure to counteract the sexual shame beaten into their heads, sometimes literally, since childhood. So, to see women in their dotage, basically our grandmothers, looking for love and sex, is something of a cathartic experience. It’s a sexuality that dare not speak its name. Who understands that better than LGBT people?

A note here about the endless ‘slut’ jokes aimed at Blanche over the years: it’s jarring now, yes. Third-wave feminism has helped to politicize sex positivity and to fight back against slut-shaming. But slut-shaming and “take back the night” movements are relatively new, and totally foreign to the Golden Girls. The show is not perfect in its depiction of sexuality, as it wrings lots of humor from Blanche the libertine. But I would argue that the other girls don’t disapprove of Blanche’s sexuality per se. They too pursue sex, and each has multiple partners throughout the series. They make no attempts to shame Blanche into changing her behavior.  (I mentioned in the previous piece that the only attempt to slut-shame Blanche in a truly hurtful way was shut down very, very quickly.) Still, I won’t deny that the attitudes seems a bit old-fashioned to a 2015 audience. I’m not sure if the girls were openly feminist, but they sure did a lot to create new paths for women on TV.

I didn’t know it when I was young, but the actresses themselves had quite the gay pedigree. Estelle Getty got her big break in the gay-themed play Torch Song Trilogy, and was one of the first celebrity AIDS activists. Bea Arthur was already known as the feminist icon Maude Findlay; in her real life, she was an AIDS and animal rights activist who bequeathed $300,000 to the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing for gay youth. Betty White was close friends with Rock Hudson, even sending him advance copies of the show shortly before his death. And Rue McClanahan . . . do I even have to explain? Rue had five husbands, Southern charm, and played Blanche with a total lack of self-consciousness. Blanche would have been almost too camp if the actress hadn’t been so intelligent. These women were Hollywood limousine liberals — in the dismissive words of 90s conservatives — but their characters had remarkable reach in Middle America. You don’t become a top 5 show catering only to the ‘coastal elites’.

The Golden Girls is such a warm, inviting experience that sometimes I get the feeling that it was made just for me. I feel that its universe appeals to me in a unique way. Of course, that’s not true, as it’s an international hit with legions of fans, gay, straight, and other. But that feeling is part of the genius of The Golden Girls: it manages to speak to gay fans in a way that most entertainment simply does not. Its warmth, its bawdiness, and its queerness envelope you, and before you know it, you’re family too.

 

(Image from thegoldengirlsreviewedby.com)

 

Where are all the gay men in tennis?

In the wake of the Jason Collins story, there has been a lot of chatter about the original trailblazer, Martina Navratilova. This is partly because Collins himself named her as a role model. SI senior writer Jon Wertheim (by far my favorite tennis writer in the world!) posted an excellent piece on Navratilova’s coming out story and the impact she’s had on both professional sport and American culture in general. I won’t summarize it all here, but every time I learn more about Navratilova’s story, I am struck by how remarkable she was and is. She came out publicly in 1981, already one of the world’s top female athletes. A 24-year-old Czechoslovakian defector, Navratilova was about a week away from asking U.S. Immigration to grant her citizenship. She was already a controversial figure, constantly pitted against her friend and rival, Chris Evert, in a hackneyed Cold War dichotomy of Western-vs-Communist/America’s Sweetheart-vs-butch-jock. After Navratilova came out, she lost millions in endorsements and endured ridicule from fans, reporters, and media commentators. In this hostile climate, Navratilova completed three of the most dominant seasons in tennis history, including a span of 6 straight Grand Slam titles (a record). She and Evert put together the most prolific rivalry in tennis (which Navratilova leads 43-37), and they remain close friends. Once reviled, Navratilova is now accepted as one of the all-time greats, with 18 major singles titles (including NINE at Wimbledon!) and 31 major doubles titles.

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Martina in 1983. (Photo credit: Martin Iooss, Jr., Sports Illustrated)

For more on Navratilova’s career, read Johnette Howard’s excellent book The Rivals.

Women’s tennis may not have always been welcoming to lgbt athletes, but there have been numerous openly gay players since Navratilova broke through, including Amelie Mauresmo (former world no. 1), Samantha Stosur (2011 U.S. Open champ), and Lisa Raymond (an all-time great in doubles). So I ask what many fans are asking now: where are all the gay male players?

Men’s tennis is not the most macho of sports, like football or hockey. That doesn’t mean, however, that rules of masculinity don’t apply to tennis. Tennis players, like all men, are expected to perform gender in certain, established ways, from the way they throw a tantrum to the way they dress. But several prominent players have recently shown support for gay rights, or at least for gay people in general. Most notably, this week Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish joined Athlete Ally, an organization founded to encourage the acceptance of lgbt people in the sporting world. Another American, Sam Querrey, told the press that “there’s got to be someone who plays tennis who is gay”; doubles legend Mike Bryan recently said “I don’t think anyone would have any issues.” Even Rafael Nadal reacted very sweetly when a male fan rushed the court and planted a kiss on his cheek (“for me it wasn’t a problem … they guy was really nice!” Oh, Rafa.).

So, are there just no gay men playing tennis at the international level? Meh, I find that hard to believe. And if there are, would other tennis players “have any issues” with it? Of course a few would. But I think for the most part, other players would either be supportive or come around eventually. Let’s face it, straight men and gay men have been sharing locker rooms since the invention of locker rooms. Men see each other naked all the time with little fanfare.

I wonder, then, why is it easier for us to accept openly gay athletes when they are female? Why was Brittney Griner’s coming out so uneventful? Why do we assume that many female athletes are lesbians unless proven otherwise? I think much of this has to do with the twin dynamic of misogyny and hypermasculinity in sport. Heteronormativity demands that women and men act according to defined, strictly enforced gender roles; but why, at least in pro sports, does an effeminate man provoke so much more hostility than a butch woman? I believe the answer lies in our cultural obsession with masculinity and the continued supremacy of men in almost every walk of life. Straight men, who still dominate hegemonic discourse, are burdened with asserting and reinforcing masculinity, including the ways a ‘real’ man must dress, walk, speak, and express emotion. As long as the ethos of masculinity dominates our sport culture, subversive types of gender and sexuality (like men who have sex with men) will have a hard time flourishing. More on this later.

Jason Collins and the New Gay Athlete

Jason Collins’ coming out is monumental, cathartic, long anticipated, even anticlimactic. Before I criticize, let me emphasize that coming out is a tremendous act of courage, love, and trust. The coming out process is arduous. (And seems never-ending to many of us who have gone through it.) For Collins to do it in such a public way, in a hypermasculine sporting culture, is awe-inspiring. While I will never belittle Collins’ brave admission, his method of coming out — which I believe will soon seem quaint and dated — was calculated. The Sports Illustrated cover article was a bit color-by-numbers, complete with the religion of team unity, sport machismo, and the supposed transgression of “gay stereotypes”.  I think we should admire Collins’ decision to speak publicly, while also understanding the cultural environment which both celebrates this admission and saddles it with homophobic, gender-normative baggage.

This particular coming out story played out in a sport publication, so I get that athletics are of primary interest to its readership. Collins’ narration, though, is completely de-sexed. Has he ever been in a relationship with a man? A woman? I’m not asking if he’s a top or bottom; I’m just asking for the vague details that most straight people would divulge without a thought. The entire narrative exists with hardly a hint that gay men love and have sex with other men. I can’t help but wonder if the preservation of privacy was his idea, his editors’, or both. A public figure can expect a measure of privacy. But coming out is a public and political act, and has been ever since our culture developed the concept of homosexuality. Coming out means divulging often uncomfortable secrets about oneself, because in doing so, we might be able to cleanse ourselves of shame and educate others. Again, I’m not asking for the world, merely a scant mention of Collins having any romantic or sexual interest in another man.

The other issue that gives me pause is the concept of Jason Collins as a subversion of “gay stereotypes”. (You only need to watch George Stephanopoulos’ smug self-satisfaction in his interview with Collins, as if he’s stumbled upon something truly profound.)  I can only assume said stereotype is that of the mincing queen with limp wrists and a lisp. For most reasonable people, this stereotype left the mainstream about 30 years ago.

The gay community is just as diverse as society at large; this includes diversity of gender expression. Gay men should be free to act as “feminine” or “masculine” as they feel is natural to them. But when we privilege certain types of gender expression over others, we oppress people in our own community. Now, to be very clear, I am not saying that Collins is doing that. We simply need to be careful how we talk about the gay male athlete. The SI story mentions repeatedly how the 7-foot Collins plays tenacious defense, that he bravely takes charges from bigger players, that he puts the good of the team above all else. There’s nothing inherently damaging about any of this. But to gay people who deal with gender policing even within our own communities, we read between the lines: He’s just one of the boys. He’s not going to peek at you in the showers. His gayness isn’t threatening like other, more feminine gay men. 

That Collins is being compared to Jackie Robinson is not accidental. Robinson was chosen to be the face of desegregation because he would be nonthreatening. He was articulate and well-mannered. His image was cultivated specifically to appeal to a mass (white) audience. This tension between conformity versus confrontation has always been present in race-based activism in America. Thus, in order to fully participate in white America, certain ways of being are elevated over others (educated, non-colloquial speech; “good hair”; liberal politics). Similarly, as gay folks are welcomed into the mainstream, hierarchies within our own communities become more pronounced. Those people who benefit from privilege within mainstream society usually benefit from the same privilege in the gay community. For those of us who want to live in a more equitable world, this is unacceptable.