“For Gays Tolerance is a Prime-Time Fantasy”

In the last couple of weeks, I took a close look at the TV show “Ellen” and the popular show “Will & Grace”. Both of these shows feature lesbian or gay lead character. As I mentioned in last week’s post, before Ellen’s sitcom character came out of the closet in the fourth season of the show, there had not been a show with a lead lesbian character on U.S.  prime-time television. Another popular show which was based on a British TV show with the same title was “Queer As Folk”, a show about a group of gays and lesbians in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The show was very popular even though some scenes were very explicit, shocking for many and very sexual. 

In the following years, more and more shows and movies started to have homosexual characters in them at some point or another, for instance the prime-time sensation “Friends”. Surprisingly to many, even the heterosexual audience seemed to enjoy watching gay characters on the screen. Certainly, this begs the questions of whether Americans became more accepting towards homosexuals in real life, as well. Did the “popularity” of gay characters in the media pave the way for a more equal treatment of homosexuals in society, for more support for equal rights? 

Personally, I think, the fact that there seemed to be more and more gay visibility in the media, certainly helped to foster more acceptance towards homosexuality in society, nevertheless, that only happened slowly.

In the New York Times article titled “For Gays, Tolerance is a Prime-Time Fantasy”, Richard Goldstein examines how accepting the American public was indeed towards homosexuals at the peek of popularity of the shows mentioned above (Goldstein, 2000). Not surprisingly, he comes to the conclusion: “Not so much”.

In Nebraska, an initiative amending the state constitution to bar the recognition of gay marriage and domestic partnerships passed by a wide margin. In Nevada, a voter initiative barring the recognition of gay marriage also passed easily. In Maine, a measure that would have made it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in housing, employment and other spheres was narrowly defeated. In Oregon, a measure that would have denied state funds to schools teaching anything that sanctioned homosexuality was barely rejected.

Even in Vermont, where last year the Legislature enacted the nation’s first law granting same-sex couples many of the benefits and protections of marriage, Republicans tapped into a virulent backlash. Running in opposition to the law, they added more than a dozen seats in the state House of Representatives, overturning a Democratic majority. And Howard Dean, the popular Democratic governor who had signed the civil union law, prevailed only after a tough campaign in which the law was a central issue” (Goldstein, 2000).

Goldstein points out that the “fantasy tolerance” towards gays on TV can be rather dangerous and have an negative impact on the individuals involved. According to him, as more and more sitcoms start to portray gay characters in a “normal” and positive light, the heterosexual audience simply assumes that there is nothing to be done anymore. For many viewers, the gay characters seem to be happy and well incorporated in society, so why should they bother to think about supporting equal rights for gays?

Yet even as pop culture provokes this ambivalent response, it blunts the reality of oppression. If sitcoms show gays leading happy lives, why, some may ask, do they need protection against discrimination? Similar cinematic illusions once allowed many people to believe that African-Americans were content to be servants and that strong-minded women wanted nothing more than to decorate their menfolk’s lives” (Goldsteind, 2000).

Nevertheless, we should not forget that a variety of shows, “Queer As Folk” in particular, addressed a variety of important equal rights issues, as well as other crucial issues related to the gay community in their show.


Richard, G. (2000, December 9). For Gays, Tolerance Is a Prime-Time Fantasy. New York Times. p. 23. Retrieved from EBSCOhost..


About MaxMann

I am a Mass Media student at California State University San Marcos and this blog is part of an idependent study research project.
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