We Need More Gay Sex on TV

There are a slew of Emmy nominations for three-dimensional LGBT characters with sex lives on premium cable, but how long before network television catches up?

BY Daniel Reynolds

August 25 2014 5:30 AM ET

Today marks the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, and, judging by the nominations, it’s been a banner year for LGBT representation on scripted television. Among the honored characters are a bisexual vice president (Kevin Spacey on Netflix’s House of Cards), a gay police chief (Andre Braugher on Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine), a closeted university provost (Beau Bridges on Showtime’s Masters of Sex), a gay dad (Jesse Tyler Ferguson on ABC’s Modern Family), a host of HIV activists (Matt Bomer, Mark Ruffalo, and Joe Mantello on HBO’s The Normal Heart), and a prison full of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning female inmates (Taylor Schilling, Natasha Lyonne, Uzo Aduba, and Laverne Cox, who also became the first trans actress to ever receive an Emmy nomination, on Orange Is the New Black).

As encouraging as these nominations are for the state of quality in LGBT representation in media, there is “room for improvement,” as GLAAD’s Wilson Cruz said in response to the media advocacy’s organization report Where We Are on TV. According to GLAAD, the 2013-2014 television season actually included fewer LGBT series regulars on scripted primetime shows from the previous year (3.3 percent, as compared to the record-breaking 4.4 percent of last season).

But the real omission isn't in whether LGBT characters exist, it's in letting them live full lives. Truly well-rounded, three-dimensional representations necessitate having gay characters whose sex lives have not been omitted or cast in a shameful light.

The problem isn't universal. For lesbians and bisexual women on TV, sex lives have never been healthier, according to Tracy Gilchrist, editor in chief of the women’s entertainment news site SheWired (a sister site of The Advocate). She points to shows like Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, and Grey’s Anatomy as gold standards for showing fully realized gay women.

“We’re in a great place,” Gilchrist diagnoses. “A few years ago, all we had was The L Word, and that was the exception. But today, everyone’s taking steps in the right direction.”

But progress is moving slower on the other side of the gender divide. Outside of premium cable and streaming services like Netflix, sexual acts between two men are few and far between. Any gay couples that exist tend to be neutered, as in the case of ABC’s Modern Family.

Though hailed for its popular gay couple Mitch and Cam, the show never really explores their sexual attraction to one another. Their first televised kiss barely amounted to a peck and only came after the arrival of their adopted daughter in September 2010. The next notable smooch would come nearly four years later at their wedding. Modern Family is far from explicit in any of its main characters' bedrooms. Still, by contrast, straight couples on the show have varied stories that deal with spicing things up in the bedroom or fear of getting caught in the act by their children.

While it represented a milestone in gay representation on TV, NBC’s The New Normal, which centered on a gay couple and their surrogate, also oversimplified the bedroom. The couple, played by Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha, kissed frequently enough that there was no big outcry over a lack of PDA — as was the case with Modern Family. But when the pair leaned in for a kiss good-night, it was across a bed that approximated the width of the Bering Sea, calling to mind the television code that kept Lucy and Ricky in separate beds in the 1950s.

This pussyfooting around the portrayal of gay men’s sex lives is rooted in a “crisis of masculinity,” Gilchrist maintains. The fear of the ick factor and its potential to scare away straight male viewer, influences how writers and showrunners depict these relationships, if it all. 

The problem isn't only on television, it's even in film, where maybe it's worse. Director Steven Soderbergh said last year that his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, had to air on HBO because film studios rejected it for being "too gay." In a more recent example, take Love Is Strange, which released this weekend in select cities. The touching romantic drama tells the story of a longtime couple — played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina — as they cope with the repercussions of getting married when it becomes legal in New York. It shows mild cuddling and swearing at best, and yet received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. 

The film’s director, Ira Sachs, pointed to the double standard still held to gay portrayals in a recent interview with The Advocate.

“I saw most of the R-rated movies of the 1970s in their first run," said Sachs. "My parents were divorced, and like many kids of the times, my dad would take us on Saturdays to see movies like Death Wish, Dressed to Kill,and The Godfather. I have a strong feeling that many of those same people — mostly men — are still on the MPAA board today, making these arcane decisions very out of step with our times.”

At "Dynamic and Diverse," a recent pre-Emmy Awards event hosted by the Television Academy and SAG AFTRA, the stars threw in their own recommendations for which shows could use more romantic storylines for LGBT characters. For some, the recommendations entered the realm of fantasy and wish fulfillment. 

Actor and comedian Jason Stuart joked that he would be up for the challenge of portraying a gay man with a sex life on television. “I’d like to see Jason Stuart — oh, that’s me! — have a relationship with Esai Morales on a new show called Me and My Guy,” Stuart says. “And every week, at the end of the show, I get to kiss him passionately, because I love him so much. And then we could talk about political issues … in bed.”

For others, like the Emmy Award-winning actor Dan Bucatinsky, who made headlines for an oral sex scene with his character’s husband on ABC’s Scandal, Hollywood is asked to puncture the ziplock on diversity in programming that may be divided between blue and red state audiences.

“The shows that you least expect to see gay characters” are the ones most in need of a gay romance, Bucatinsky says, saying procedural dramas such as CSI, Law and Order, and NCIS  could become shows “where the badasses get out of their cars and pull their guns and get the robbers and then go home to their husbands.”

Though Bucatinsky’s Scandal character was killed off, and Fox has pulled the plug on that long-standing TV bastion of queer youth coming of age known as Glee, the upcoming season looks promising. A sex scene between two men has already been teased in a trailer for ABC's How to Get Away With Murder, also created by Scandal maker Shonda Rhimes. Fox’s Empire, created by out director Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), features the talents of actor Jussie Smollett, who plays the ostracized gay son of a music mogul — a role that seems ripe for sexual drama. Another Fox series, Red Band Society, tackles ableism by showing hopitalized teens who are also in the throes of young love. Moreover, they are administered by a male nurse played by Wilson Cruz, who told Xfinity that his character was made gay “by my insistence.”

“This is GLAAD at work,” Cruz said. “We need more gay characters on TV. We need more LGBT characters of color on TV.” And his list goes on. It all leads to a day when network television reflects real stories of LGBT Americans who, in their own lives, aren't afraid to love.

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