When We Went Gay

The principal characters were young gay men in Manchester who were frankly sexual, extremely drug-friendly and never the least bit apologetic about any of it. Sarah Lyall of The New York Times called the show “an explosion of graphic language, male nudity and explicit sex guaranteed to offend as many people as it enthralled.” Gay activists were angered by the reinforcement of gay stereotypes (Mr. Davies called these critics “boneheaded, politically correct gay political fossils”) while straight viewers were squeamish with the reality that every gay adult begins life as a gay child. The fact that gay teenagers often seek out their first sexual experience with someone older was something else most people didn’t want to be reminded of in prime time.

From explicit gay sex on pay cable, it was a very short hop to the much tamer Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a show which argued that there were no shortcomings in a straight geek that couldn’t be cured by the superior savoir-faire of five gay tastemakers. (The show also marked the final reclamation of the previously pejorative word “queer” by the gay community.) In 2005, MTV Networks launched Logo, a Viacom-owned gay cable channel, which quickly made distribution deals with every major cable and satellite network. Suddenly, American kids in 25 million homes had access to gay programming whenever they wanted it—at least when their parents weren’t watching them.

WITH SO MUCH INCREASED VISIBILITY FOR EVERYTHING GAY, the world was primed for another cultural breakthrough. In 2006, there were nine big movies with gay themes or gay characters, but only one caused a sensation. Brokeback Mountain was an A-list Hollywood feature that presented two gay cowboys as a perfectly normal part of Wyoming in the 1960’s—and that depiction of these archetypes of American masculinity turned out to be revolutionary all by itself. It was also the first gay love story on film that felt so universal, the enthusiasm of the audience wasn’t dampened by the sexual orientation of the principals.

The kind of movie that would have caused an uproar 20 years earlier became newsworthy because it provoked hardly any attacks. “What if they held a culture war and no one fired a shot?” Frank Rich asked. There was almost “no controversy, no Fox News tar and feathering, no roar from the religious right”—and the film won three Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

A crucial element in the movement’s steady progress was a simple matter of demographics: Since the 1960’s, every new generation of Americans has been more accepting of sexual diversity than the one before it. Although harassment of openly gay high-school students remains rampant, every year there is a growing number of young men and women who are coming out to their parents and their friends long before they reach college.

Besides exposing their peers to proud young gays and lesbians at an early age, these brash young men and women make another significant contribution. In many cases, the first gay people American adults meet are the gay classmates that their straight children bring home with them from high school.

“This has brought gay people into households all over America,” said Matt Coles, the head of the gay-rights project at the ACLU. “The important thing is not just knowing someone gay, but talking to someone who is gay. I think they’re having really important dialogues with their friends’ parents.”

When We Went Gay