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Three's Company Made Me the Gay Man I Am Today

Three's Company Made Me the Gay Man I Am Today

Three's Company

On the ABC comedy's 40th anniversary, Michael Montlack reflects on how he learned to be gay from a straight actor playing a straight character pretending to be gay.

Even with shows like RuPaul's Drag Race,Glee, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, it's easy to argue that we need more representation. Luckily, there's hardly the void of gay role models many of us experienced coming up in the 1970s and '80s. Sure, our developing presence in the media is crucial to the LGBTQ community -- especially for the youth, and especially now. I'd been there myself: 5, 6, 7 years old and already fighting and hiding the undeniable crushes threatening my suburban childhood of soccer games and karate class. Who was there to turn to for mirroring? Who would show me the gay way?

Well, there were the hung, handlebar-mustached porn stars featured in the damp, crumpled magazines my friends and I found while setting off firecrackers one day in the woods near the highway. Those photos, which had been stuffed inside a tire -- the secret stash of some neighborhood kid apparently smart enough to acquire such contraband but too scared (or genius) to keep them in his home -- sure did freak out my friends. But that imagery led to an even more alien notion: Were those the only kind of gay people in the world? Why would I think otherwise? I hadn't seen them anywhere else. Aside from The Hollywood Squares -- sort of -- when it showcased the snide innuendos of the openly closeted Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly, who were off-the-wall uncle-ish clowns our mothers adored without question, right? (Not lustful cocksuckers like those men in the magazines.)

For weeks, I tormented myself, imagining my mother's response -- not to my eventual coming-out but to my ultimate career path. Gone were her dreams of a doctor or lawyer son: By age 7, I assumed eventually I'd have to accept my fate and become a handlebar-mustached porn star myself.

Little did I know I was about to be schooled by a silly new sitcom airing on ABC: Three's Company. Jack Tripper appeared on the screen in 1977 (the 40th anniversary of the first episode is this March): boyishly handsome, adorably clumsy and generally ordinary in most ways, except one -- he was pretending to be gay in order to live with two female roommates. This was certainly "a step that was new" but not completely unfamiliar to a boy pretending to be straight in order to live peacefully in an unwelcoming world.

Jack (and John Ritter, who played him, for that matter) wasn't queer, but the fact that he had the audacity to even label himself gay was astounding. And even more astounding: He actually benefited from it. I mean, the man was living my dream by residing in a beachside apartment with his two best platonic gal pals. Like some kind of perpetual slumber party, probably not unlike the sleepovers I envied when my twin sister stayed up until dawn, laughing and whispering with her girlfriends, no doubt high on the Hostess cakes and Hawaiian Punch they'd smuggled into her room as provisions.

But Jack would teach me more than how to be platonically (and, when needed, flirtatiously) close to women. He provided lessons on how to avoid the sexually liberated Lanas of the world, like that assertive cougar neighbor of his or those prematurely developed junior high school girls whose hormones spiked around a mysteriously sensitive and ultimately unavailable brooder like me. How I'd swerve around those hallway corners, postponing an awkward invitation to "do homework together" or, worse, attend a dance that could evolve into an advance certain to burst my closet bubble.

And stereotypes. Jack would teach me about those by making them appear utterly ridiculous: limp wrists, Sylvester-the-Cat lisps, an oversexed disposition. Any character on the show who was intelligent or with it merely rolled his or her eyes at Jack's overdone caricature. But he could take that costume off as fast as he put it on -- it only ever being worn to calm a clueless and curmudgeonly landlord (Mr. Roper or later Mr. Furley), who more easily stomached the idea of a sissy over some heterosexual stud scandalously living with two beautiful single women.

But most importantly, Jack was there -- a real presence in my living room week after week -- pretending to be something so foreign yet so natural to me, and informing me (no, us!) that we did in fact exist and could even find cozy homes for ourselves: in sunny beach communities with fun sisterly friends and zany, if often backward, landlords who might actually prefer a gay tenant over a straight one.

Suddenly I knew: I'd find my place in this world. And no, it didn't have to be within the muddy pages of an abandoned porn magazine. Unless I wanted it to be.

So thanks, Jack. (And thanks, John.)

Thanks, Three's Company.

Author-photoMICHAEL MONTLACK is the editor of My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them (University of Wisconsin Press). His second book of poetry, which includes a poem about Jack Tripper, is forthcoming.

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Michael Montlack