It's profitable to be a little bit gay

As Hollywood winds down its gay, gay summer -- dominated in media circles by Bravo's ubiquitous makeover series "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" -- the debate has begun shifting from tonnage to quality and whether TV's latest infatuation benefits the gay community or simply exploits it.

Gay men have become TV's foremost fashion accessory, shown to possess fabulous taste and deliver the best catty one-liners at any party -- the contemporary equivalent of Paul Lynde on "The Hollywood Squares." It's a stereotype, to be sure, but one welcomed by some activists because in many ways it's a positive stereotype, from the "Queer Eye" gang to the gals' gay buddies on "Sex and the City" to a gay couple's impeccably decorated home on ABC's fall comedy "It's All Relative."

"For some reason, these stereotypes aren't hurting us anymore," said John Aravosis, a gay-rights activist who helped lead the campaign against Laura Schlessinger's daytime TV show. "We're being presented as the person you wish you could have as your neighbor, which isn't a bad thing."

Traditionally, minorities grapple with two challenges in television: getting attention and managing the images conveyed once they do. African Americans are over-represented statistically, for example, but activists still worry about negative and stereotyped roles. Then again, those parts at least create work -- which Asians and Native Americans, who remain largely invisible, don't get.

Yet for all "Queer Eye's" hoopla and gays' high TV profile, there is hardly unanimity in rating this as a step forward. Al Rantel, an openly gay conservative talk-show host on KABC-AM (790), contends the show isn't any less offensive than stereotypes of "brainy Asians" or financially astute Jews. "I see the broad spectrum of gay society, and the fact is most gay men are not lispy, prissy, flamboyant queers," he said. "Gay people dress just as badly as anybody else."

In addition, Rantel argues that much of the public is turned off by "the real queenie quality that these guys have ... [and] I think a lot of gay people are secretly offended by it."

Similarly, Ron Cowen -- an executive producer of "Queer as Folk," the Showtime drama that capitalizes on pay TV's latitude to portray promiscuous gay characters unflinchingly -- said he finds it "discouraging to see gay men presented as frivolous stereotypes ... experts in how to wax your eyebrows, pick out a shirt and wallpaper a kitchen."

As for criticism directed at "Queer as Folk," fellow producer Daniel Lipman says the series captures a slice of gay life -- albeit one less predigested for widespread consumption. "Not everyone is in a monogamous relationship living in the suburbs," he said, conceding that much of the country probably remains more comfortable with "a safer, sanitized view of gay people."

Television has historically been progressive regarding homosexuality, from the breakthrough 1972 movie "That Certain Summer" to Ellen DeGeneres' coming out -- both in life and on her eponymous ABC sitcom -- a quarter of a century later. The current spike isn't hard to figure out, beginning with the sure-to-be-copied success of "Will & Grace" and Hollywood's generally liberal mind-set on social issues.

Of greater importance, however, are bottom-line concerns, including a perception that the young audience advertisers court is more accepting than their parents and the fact that gays are seen as an affluent (and hence desirable) group. Those forces also explain why there's scant deviation from the template of perfectly groomed males whose sex lives stay unthreateningly off-camera.

"It always comes in waves, and right now we're in a big one," said Richard Barrios, author of "Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall," who expressed ambivalence about where the tide is heading -- having morphed, he said, from "superficial and sex-driven" to "superficial and image-obsessed." On the plus side, Barrios finds much to like about "Queer Eye," particularly the rapport between the "fab five" and their straight makeover specimens.

Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron -- whose credits include "Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story" and now "It's All Relative," a clashing cultures show about a woman with gay fathers who falls in love with the son of working-class bar owners in Boston -- are unapologetic that the new program's top priority will be to connect with the widest possible audience.

"We're not setting out to change the world," Zadan said. "We're setting out to make a sitcom. The main question is, 'Is it funny?' " That isn't to say the program can't achieve inroads, he noted, by depicting loving gay parents. Even if the premise of fastidious gays bickering with blue-collar straights plays to stereotypes, Zadan said, "A series provides the opportunity to find the humanity and the common ground."

Of course, the mere idea of subtly humanizing gays steams cultural warriors like Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, who insists that Hollywood "refuses to give up its pro-homosexual agenda" and is determined to "influence the culture," even if that means alienating consumers.

Actually, big media companies tend to be secular in their worship of profits, so rampant viewer rejection would prompt a retreat that hasn't happened. It's by no means clear, however, that all the media exposure contributes to public comfort with gays in any greater measure than it fuels the wrath of groups like Lafferty's, which anticipate a backlash over the issues of gay marriage and last June's Supreme Court decision striking down sodomy laws.

Perhaps the ultimate sign of progress is to see gays presented without sexual orientation defining them.

Never a political comic before her "coming out" experience, DeGeneres recently told reporters that she doesn't feel compelled to make her personal life an issue in her new talk show, which will make its debut next month.

"I just want to be the person I was before this kind of overshadowed my life," she said. "People know I'm gay.... There's nothing to talk about."

Yet even gay-rights proponents have their doubts about casual gay-ness becoming the norm in the present climate.

"It's very safe to assume it's going to be part of the [presidential] campaign," Barrios said, adding, "Willie Horton is going to be gay this time" -- a reference to the African American criminal featured in ads for then-candidate and vice president George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988, appealing to fears among middle-class white voters.

Such weighty matters admittedly sound like a lot of unnecessary baggage for the "Queer Eye" guys to tote around; still, based on the lens through which TV filters gays, it's safe to conclude that while those bags will contain little substance, they'll all look just fabulous.

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