In 1996, at a picnic table beside the playground of my old elementary school, I started my first business venture. My friend Sarah and I created what we were certain would be the first unofficial Rosie O’Donnell fan magazine. We developed a thorough business plan—photos would be cut from other magazines, finished issues could be generated on the copying machine at my father’s office—but like many startups, our idea never came to fruition. I watched The Rosie O’Donnell Show every single day it was aired, and most days I recorded it on VHS that I would rewatch until I wore the tape thin.
Rosie’s show gave mainstream attention to Broadway musicals. She spent time with smart people, and she played silly games and told stupid jokes and belly laughed at ridiculous sound effects, which is to say that Rosie O’Donnell’s quirky little television show shaped much of who I am. I’m not really the praying type, but every once in a while I throw one up to the sky just asking for The Rosie O’Donnell Show to be brought back exactly the way it was.
See, I am a television person. It started with my envy of Punky Brewster’s rickety flower cart bed and spreads to the present day, in which I often have to bite my tongue as my peers explain how much happier they are that they don’t even own a TV.
For better or worse, much of my life has been measured in TV moments. I remember Oksana Baiul defeating Nancy Kerrigan for the gold medal in figure skating at the 1994 Olympic Games. I cried into a pile of newspaper articles about Kerrigan, many of which I had laminated in Con-Tact paper. You know, the stuff you line drawers with. I remember watching Golden Girls with my grandma on the evenings that she picked me up from school. Every single thing I know today about being a delicate southern slut came, possibly too early, from Blanche.
And I remember the first night I watched So You Think You Can Dance in 2005. Even though I was too old for such tomfoolery, I remember being so moved by the first round of auditions that I blew my entire savings on the extravagance of a TiVo box so that I would never miss a single second.
Toward the end of her run on television, Rosie O’Donnell announced to the world that she is gay. It wasn’t just a subtle revelation: in no time flat, she was shaving half of her head (more than a decade before Rihanna made it trendy!) and running her big mouth to every possible media outlet.
Several years earlier, in 1997, Ellen Degeneres’ sitcom aired its now infamous coming out episode. I watched it with my parents, and short of a dream sequence that featured a goofy canteloupes-as-boobs moment and the accidental “I’m gay” that Ellen blurted out over an airport loudspeaker, I remember very little of it.
I do, however, remember what came after: magazine covers, an advisory graphic at the beginning of future episodes of her show, rallies outside of the studio where the show was filmed, and many overheard conversations in which people would say “I don’t care if she chooses to be gay, but she doesn’t have to be so…militant about it.” Ellen’s viewership shrank and within a season, the show was canceled.
Somewhere, in the midst of those high-profile coming out stories, I learned to internalize what I was hearing all around me: it’s okay for someone to be gay, (I guess, if they choose to), as long as they don’t rub it in people’s faces, or talk about it, or act on it, or shave half their head, or hope for a successful career, or start having crazy thoughts like maybe they want to be married to another gay person.
I didn’t only believe it, I echoed it. “It’s fine that Rosie is gay,” I surely said to friends. “But why is she suddenly so mad at the world?”
I didn’t really have the vocabulary for it then, but I started to realize that I was different in the second grade. Television-wise, we were deep into the Full House years, and I think I started to realize I was more interested in Uncle Jesse than I was in DJ. Conversations at school started to revolve around baseball and, in a silly second grade way, girls. I was more engaged with reading books (and earning free pizzas!) than I was in hanging out with other boys in my class.
I started to draw closer to girls as friends. I immersed myself deeper in the imaginary worlds contained within my parents’ collection of folk and showtunes LPs. I strung jute from one side of my bedroom to another, folded a sheet over it, and made of my bed an imaginary stage where I performed for an audience of adoring fans.
Though I would not be sexually active for years (and years and years and years), my sexuality started to shape every aspect of my life from that point, and probably even sooner.
If there’s one thing a television person knows (other than to avoid spoilers like the plague), it is that you can’t really explain your indulgence to non-TV people. Which is why it felt ridiculous to try and summarize a recent reality TV brouhaha for my friend Amy, who is the closest thing I have in my life to a completely television-free person. The fight, about the suppression of sexual identity on reality competition programs, is between Adam Lambert (famous for his gothpop wail), Adam Levine (owner of the world’s most immaculate V-shaped hip muscle and the lead singer of Maroon 5) and Nigel Lythgoe (famous for his 70′s Peter Frampton hairdo, chattering clown teeth, and gig as Executive Producer of American Idol).
Adam Lambert, the runner-up and should-be winner of American Idol Season 8 came forward and said that AI producers convinced him to not be honest about his sexuality. He was not allowed to give interviews, so people were left to speculate if he was indeed gay (which he had been open about for years before he was on the show).
Adam Levine, who hosted The Voice on NBC, recently put American Idol on blast in an interview with Out Magazine:
“What’s always pissed me off about Idol is wanting to mask that, for that to go unspoken. C’mon. You can’t be publicly gay? At this point? On a singing competition? Give me a break. You can’t hide basic components of these people’s lives. The fact that The Voice didn’t have any qualms about being completely open about it is a great thing.”
Nigel Lythgoe, the executive producer of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, responded in an EW interview:
I didn’t understand why we’re talking about contestants being gay or not gay. I don’t go into my dentist and say, “Are you gay?” I don’t say to contestants on So You Think You Can Dance, “Are you gay?” What does it got to do with me? What does it got to do with anybody? When does privacy stop in this country? If somebody wants to say they’re gay, it’s up to them. You don’t expect us to turn around and say, “Are you gay?” Why would we do that? — “By the way, he’s a Catholic and he supports Obama and here’s his sexuality” — what does that have anything to do with singing talent? Maybe it does for Adam Levine, but not for me.
Somebody hold my earrings. Shit just got good.
All 1,200 words that you have read so far were just a way for me to write myself into the center of the frustration that I have felt about Lythgoe’s response. For 24 hours now, I have been ruminating on ideas of power and privilege. The moral of the story is, to quote Ani DiFranco (and reveal myself as a total dorm room crusader): “Privilege is a headache that you don’t know that you don’t have.”
On So You Think You Can Dance, Lythgoe has firmly positioned himself as the only completely permanent member of an ever-revolving panel. Women serve largely as objects of his gaze, their bodies constantly available for his sexually suggestive feedback. Male dancers who transgress rigid boundaries of masculinity are victims of ridicule. Just a few years ago, when two male ballroom dancers auditioned together, their “brokeback ballroom” routine and the fact that they were touching each other made Nigel “feel sick.” He quickly issued one of those immensely popular “I’m sorry if you didn’t get it” non-apologies which also firmed-up his belief in patriarchal gender roles.
Listen, it would be stupid to expect smart ideas about the world to come from a judge on a silly reality show. It also seems unfair to let him off the hook when he has an audience that is vast and impressionable, to whom he has invested his own money to position himself as an expert.
Lythgoe contends that it is rude to talk about sexuality. This is probably for the same reasons that, to people who have money, it is rude to talk about money, and to people who are of a dominant racial group, it is rude to talk about race. People who have been afforded great privilege don’t have to think or talk about their privilege, they can simply act on it.
Also, you cannot say in an interview that sexuality is irrelevant, then produce a show that is held together almost entirely by sexuality. Nearly every song performed on American Idol is about (male-female) sexuality, whether intercourse or romance. Every SYTYCD dance, as we’re told by the choreographers’ video packages, is about a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, or two men who are in love with the same woman, or two women who have been hurt by the same man. To say that these two shows function independently of sexuality is to say that these poor dummies are singing and dancing to Skinamarinky Dinky Dink. And even that sounds pretty phallic.
How can Lythgoe claim to not care about sexuality? Because, although he’s also been shaped by his sexuality since the second grade just like I have, he has never had to defend his sexuality. As a member of the dominant group, he’s been given carte blanche to assert his sexual identity anywhere he damn well pleases. Sure, he’s probably been called gay before—lots of times, actually—but he still has access to all of the corners of the world that have been closed off to those who aren’t white, or straight, or rich.
Finally, the obsessive gender-policing is especially egregious when you think about who makes up the talent pool. Sure, you’re pandering to votes from a middle-American audience. But to pretend that Hollywood and Broadway and every corner of the entertainment world aren’t filled with super-talented gay people is dumber than pretending that most reality television producers aren’t British billionaires.
It took me a long time to unlearn the lie that those who are different should just shut up about it. Why did Rosie have to make such a scene? Why did Ellen have to go and get herself blacklisted from Hollywood for a good long while (a fact that is easy to forget now that we all know her as the queen of daytime)? Why is someone who is an “other” obsessed with always talking about being an “other”?
Because it’s all we know how to do. It is the only way to carve out our place in this world, to hope that the message of “It Gets Better” goes beyond a bunch of little internet videos.
It’s the way we wear grooves into the worry stones that we’ve carried with us since the moment we first realized that, without any notice, we could be punched in the neck, or stabbed in the side, or fired from our jobs, or stomped on the curb just for living honestly.
From my earliest memory, television has shaped me. From those same memories, I have been shaped by my sexuality as well. Being gay has informed the way I talk (yes, nasally with hissing S’s), the way I dress, the hobbies I enjoy, the unfortunate ways I sometimes feel uncomfortable in my own skin, the awkward ways that I bloomed late and fumble my way through relationships, the immediate ways I am able to connect with people, and my decision to always raise my voice.
Surely in 2011, television, particularly television that relies on subsuming the identities and talents of the people from whom it profits and without whom it wouldn’t exist, can create a place where people can come and be completely gay.
And please, So You Think You Can Dance, when you do the first dance routine where two men kiss, bring Mia back to choreograph it. Her routines are just beyond.
Cole Farrell is super gay and pretty militant about it. He is fortunate to be surrounded by people who are pretty okay with that. He is a writer, and you can follow him on Twitter.