Prime Time's Final Frontier.
Some once-pioneering gay TV trails are beginning to resemble ruts: the gay or maybe-gay coworker (Spin City, NYPD Blue), the seasoned pro who has a brush with same-sex desire (Homicide), even gay-curious youth (Dawson's Creek, That '70s Show, Party of Five). So what frontier is left?
Try gay parents.
TV doesn't offer a single same-sex, diaper-changing duo as weekly characters, and when gay moms and dads do appear, they're usually gone faster than you can say "very special episode." (Dharma & Greg's dads, who cross-dressed in a recent lark on the San Francisco-set sitcom, don't count).
There is Friends, which broke boundaries in 1995 when Ross's ex-wife, Carol (Jane Sibbett), lobbied to raise their son with her female lover, Susan (Jessica Hecht), but the pair has appeared with less and less frequency over the years.
The trail was blazed in 1972 by That Certain Summer, a sensitive TV movie starring Hal Holbrook as a father who falls in love with a younger man (Martin Sheen)--and, more pertinently, cares for his children. Summer won a Golden Globe and earned director Lamont Johnson a Directors Guild of America Award. The tube put a lesbian spin on the story in 1978's A Question of Love, starring Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander, and later in the Emmy award-winning, true-life Serving in Silence, with Glenn Close as Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer.
But gay parental characters have popped up rarely, if sweetly, on regular series television. By 1980 Soap's mainly gay Jodie (Billy Crystal) became a caring pop who wound up in a custody battle. Tracey Ullman played goofy Francesca, a PC teen with two giddy dads, in a regular sketch on her late-'80s Fox series. And on Ellen, Ellen's girlfriend, Laurie (Lisa Darr), surprised even the Queen of Coming Out when she revealed she had a precocious daughter. A bigger shock came toward the end of Roseanne's run, when Bev (Estelle Parsons) admitted to her daughters that when she prepared to have sex with their father, she would peek at a copy of Playboy first.
Gay parenting has also become a hot quickie topic on drama series. At Chicago Hope, Dr. John Sutton (Jamey Sheridan) discovered his ex-wife and her female lover were trying to conceive, and NYPD Blue's Detective Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) fathered a baby for fellow cop Abby Sullivan (Paige Turco) and her girlfriend, Kathy (Darr again).
And on a 1997 episode of ABC's The Practice, lawyer Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco) nearly choked on a gavel when his mom not only came out but also asked him to fight in court for her right to marry her lover. "We shot it when the Hawaiian same-sex marriage law was all over the newspapers," says Lois Smith, who played Jimmy's mom in the episode. For her, the part proved less controversial. "There was no flap at all," she shrugs. "Not for a moment--not on the set, off the set, or anywhere I ever heard of."
Still, Mrs. Berluti hasn't been back to visit her son, and in a worst-case scenario, NYPD Blue's Kathy was killed by Abby's psychotic ex-girlfriend, and a bereaved Abby left town. Clearly the networks aren't ready for a TV version of Heather Has Two Mommies.
The highest-profile gay parent on TV now is found on, of all zip codes, Beverly Hills, 90210. Earlier this season, Samantha Sanders (Christina Belford), a recurring character since the show's start, informed her hyperhetero son, Steve (Ian Ziering), that she was a lesbian--complete with lover. The news understandably shocked Steve.
"Of course a guy is going to react if his mother says `I'm gay' or his father says `I'm gay,'" says 90210 executive producer Aaron Spelling. But similar misgivings from viewers aren't a concern for the TV veteran, who has included gay characters on his shows dating back to Dynasty's bisexual Steven Carrington, who became a daddy himself on the hit '80s prime-time soap (only to watch his father, Blake, deem him unfit and take the kid away).
Spelling says Samantha's sexual reorientation came out of a natural story line progression. "[She] hadn't been with her husband in years," Spelling says. "After a breakup women can rebound and find a guy, a guy can rebound and find another girl. They're looking for love, for affection, for a presence. Why can't a woman find that with another woman?"
They can. It just doesn't happen that often between commercials--which ultimately accounts for the tube's lack of loving gay moms and dads. "Television has perpetuated the myth that gays and lesbians cannot become parents," notes Scott Seomin, entertainment media director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "The community needs to see such role models and success stories, even if they are in a sitcom."
Whether a deluge of gay parents will pop up on Walker, Texas Ranger remains uncertain, but if anyone is spearheading the way, it's Spelling. "Steve's mother and her girlfriend are definitely coming back next season," says the uber-producer. "You can't ignore people's sexual orientation."
Epstein is West Coast editor for Soap Opera Digest and a regular contributor to E! Online.
Find out mere about these and other gay-themed TV shows at www.advocate.com
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|Title Annotation:||television programs rarely depict gay parents|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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