Photo: Sam Smith, Mary Lambert, Laverne Cox, and Lea DeLaria
Op-ed: This Is What Happens When a Generation Is Raised on LGBT Visibility

By Jase Peeples

Originally published on Advocate.com August 29 2014 7:00 AM ET

As I sat in the audience at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, I witnessed something I’d dreamed of seeing since my earliest days out of the closet. Every time J.Lo., Jay Z, or Beyoncé stepped onto the stage the audience around me erupted in cheers.

And they did the same thing for Sam Smith.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time I’d watched a crowd cheer an out performer, but this wasn’t an artist who had years of success or an established fan base before he proudly told the world “I’m gay.” Smith is a 22-year-old British artist who bravely stood up and revealed who he was days before the May release of his debut album, In the Lonely Hour, which includes emotionally driven love songs written from a gay perspective.

Here was an openly gay artist, backed by major record label, at the beginning of a promising career, and an arena full of young people were screaming for him at one of the biggest award shows in pop culture like they were at a One Direction concert.

It was an astonishing sight. 

When Smith (pictured right) took the stage to sing his hit “Stay With Me” and the audible adoration of the audience intensified, I began reflecting on the numerous signs throughout that day that prove to me that we are witnessing the dawn of a new age of LGBT equality in entertainment.

Earlier that day on the event’s red carpet, I couldn’t help smiling as I spoke with Faking It star Katie Stevens and talked about how happy she was to be a part of a show where young LGBT people could see themselves reflected. Then she passionately added how her gay fans affect her life as well.

“My gay fans inspire me because they aren’t afraid to be who they are,” she said. “I think everyone struggles with that at some point in their lives. I’m not gay, but I struggle with that too. So having my gay fans be so amazing, proud, and happy with who they are is inspiring to me every day.”

The 22-year-old actress’s attitude is one that many in her generation share — an attitude that has blossomed in a generation who has never known a world without positive images of LGBT people in some form.

Moments after speaking with Stevens, Nick Jonas (another 22-year-old) echoed her sentiments.

“To see that people are being exactly who they are is a beautiful thing and I’m honored to be a friend of the community,” he said. “From the beginning of our careers our gay fans were amazing and so supportive.”

“And they always gave us the best gifts,” he added with a laugh. “Which was really sweet.”

Jonas’s comments underscore another facet of his generation’s attitude toward LGBT people. Unlike the rock stars of another era, he doesn’t feel threatened by the adoration of gay fans or worry that embracing it will mean speculation about his own sexuality. Instead he openly shows his appreciation and encourages gay youth to be who they are.

“There’s such power in visibility and the VMAs is such a visible moment in pop culture,” out artist Mary Lambert told me shortly before the show began. Her words rebounded in my brain the next day as I watched a row of journalists beside me and a sea of stars on the red carpet of the Emmy Awards gush over Laverne Cox (pictured left) and her fellow cast members from Orange Is the New Black.

“It’s weird,” Cox said when I asked her to describe how she felt walking the carpet that day as the first trans woman to ever receive an Emmy nomination. “My brother has always been a huge supporter of me as an actress, and he would tell me, ‘You’re a brilliant actress. You should make your own films. You should do a one-woman show,’ because he didn’t think that I’d be able to have this mainstream moment that I’m having now, and neither did I for so long. So it’s a dream come true, definitely, but I didn’t get here by myself. A lot of people made this happen.”

Nevertheless, Orange Is the New Black hasn’t only catapulted Cox’s star, the series has been successful in part because it’s given a unprecedented mixture of people a platform where they are visible together for the first time.

“You never see people like me reflected on TV,” said OITNB star Lea DeLaria. “This show is the only time I can say I’ve seen this. Butches are always portrayed as stupid, as truck drivers, as drunk, as beating their girlfriends. To have this beautiful, positive image of a butch dyke — who is smart and has a hard heart on the outside but a creamy center — it’s like God’s gift to me.”

DeLaria’s costar Matt McGorry, who plays corrections officer John Bennett, believes the critical acclaim and popularity of the Netflix series sends a powerful message to those crafting shows for network television. “I think it sends a wonderful message that people want to see this — lots of people want to see this, and it’s amazing to see TV and media are finally beginning to realize these are stories that need to be told,” the 28-year-old actor said of the diverse cast of characters represented in OITNB, adding he doesn’t understand the trepidation of network executives over equal screen time for same-sex romance. “It’s funny because I grew up in Manhattan, in Chelsea — which is a very gay area — and being on a show where [LGBT] people are a part of everyday life sort of feels like home. ”

McGorry and DeLaria (pictured right) represent two equally important types of advocates who are voicing the need to shift the way LGBT people are depicted in pop culture; those who wish to see their own lives reflected in entertainment, and those who wish to see a more accurate reality on screen — a reality for them that has always included LGBT people.

However, Michelle Hurst, who plays OITNB’s Miss Claudette Pelage, says she’s surprised the level of diversity in the Netflix series hasn’t been achieved in a greater number of TV shows by now. “There is some diversity now, and there was some before, but we’re the ultimate at the moment,” she said. “That’s so strange to me because you would think by now there would be more of every kind of human, not just because they’re in jail, but because they’re people. People have disabilities. People are different ethnicities. In this country this is what we’re made of. So we need to see that exhibited everywhere.”

Her observation is a reminder that while we’ve come a long way, there’s even further to go before we can claim we’re anywhere near a healthy level of visibility in all forms of media. Still, the number of visible out entertainers, LGBT allies, and inclusiveness I witnessed at both the VMAs and the Emmys filled me with a tremendous sense of joy and a hope for the future.

The world of entertainment has greatly evolved since the days I would rush home from school to watch Ryan Phillippe as gay teen Billy Douglas on One Life to Live for a few moments of relief from the feeling I was the only gay teen in the world. Thankfully, LGBT youth today have a number of outlets available to them that not only reinforce the message “you are not alone,” but they’re also beginning to show the beauty of people from across the full LGBT spectrum. 

OITNB star Yael Stone (Lorna Morello) summed it up best when I asked her what she felt Laverne Cox’s Emmy nomination said about the evolution of entertainment. “The times they are a-changing," she said, "and this is a watershed moment.”

 

JASE PEEPLES is The Advocate's entertainment editor and a contributor to Out and Gay.net. He lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @JasePeeples