When We Went Gay

Ten years ago, CHARLES KAISER wrote The Gay Metropolis, the landmark portrait of 20th-century New York viewed through the eyes

Ten years ago, CHARLES KAISER wrote The Gay Metropolis, the landmark portrait of 20th-century New York viewed through the eyes of gay New Yorkers. A lot has changed since then, from the murder of a Wyoming teenager named Matthew Shepard that reanimated the gay political movement, to the Supreme Court decision that is the most important event in the gay-rights struggle since the Stonewall riots in 1969. Later this month, Grove Press will publish a 10th-anniversary edition of the book. This article is adapted from the new afterword, in which Mr. Kaiser guides us through the amazing changes in gay life at the dawn of the new millennium.

At the dawn of the 21st century, gay life’s imprint on everyday life exploded as America embraced everything from the first gay mega-hit in prime-time television to the first gay Hollywood movie to capture universal acclaim—and collect $178 million at the box office.

When Will and Grace debuted in 1998, there was no indication that it might change the cultural landscape. As America’s first almost completely gay sitcom, it got off to a slow start, despite the presence of two straight women as two of the main characters. Even office workers in hip Manhattan were a little nervous about it: What would people think if they started to laugh at those jokes in front of the water cooler? But the quality of the humor gradually won them over. Beginning with its third season, the program attracted more than 17 million viewers every week, and it became the second-highest-rated sitcom among young adults for five years in a row. With the even more popular (and equally gay-friendly) Friends as its lead-in on Thursday nights, Will and Grace gradually appropriated a larger space in American pop culture than anything gay ever had before. Some critics carped that its characters were clichés, but many more decided that the show’s sharp writing placed it within the pantheon of great American sitcoms.

The success of Will and Grace opened the market up to all kinds of gay entertainment; it also gave a few celebrities the courage to finally proclaim who they really were. In 2002, Rosie O’Donnell confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in show business when her autobiography revealed that she was a lesbian. Ellen DeGeneres had made the same revelation about herself on her own show, Ellen, five years earlier, but the mini-media event she created around her announcement (which included the cover of Time) was not enough to prevent the cancellation of her sitcom a year later. But her TV career began to take off again after she hosted the Emmy Awards following the attacks of 9/11.

She reminded the audience that they were supposed to go on with their lives as usual, because to do otherwise “is to let the terrorists win—and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?” (Imagine someone saying that in prime time, 30 years ago.)

Will and Grace didn’t just change the landscape of American TV—by the end of its original run it had also been broadcast in more than 30 other countries, including France, Germany, Croatia, Pakistan, Sweden and Bosnia and Herzegovina. But just five months after its American debut, a new show started across the Atlantic which made Will and Grace look almost as tame as The Love Boat.

Created by veteran English television writer Russell T. Davies, Queer As Folk inspired a tsunami of criticism when it burst out from Britain’s Channel Four in 1999 with an opening episode which showed a 29-year-old man making very explicit love to a beautiful 15-year-old boy. The same installment featured the same 29-year-old at the birth of his son to a lesbian friend. After the 29-year-old bragged about his teenage conquest in front of the mother of his child, a woman friend observed: “So: You’ve both had a child this evening!”

When We Went Gay