America Sees Shades of Gay: A Once-Invisible Group Finds the Spotlight
Maybe it began, as so many things do, with Madonna and the world’s desire to dance. Five years ago, she siphoned from the homosexual fringes of Harlem an outrageous dance tradition called ”voguing” and spiked straight, white, mainstream dance clubs with it. Or maybe it was Tom Hanks, accepting an Academy Award for his portrayal of a gay lawyer in Philadelphia, and tearfully thanking his high school drama teacher and a classmate — ”two of the finest gay Americans that I had the good fortune to be associated with” — before a billion movie fans around the world. Maybe it happened aeons ago, when David Bowie ventured out for his very first purchase of eye shadow.
Maybe it happened hundreds of times over the last decade, in ways just as important — and just as forgettable. It’s never easy to trace the roots of a revolution, especially in something as quicksilver and ephemeral as pop culture. But however it all began, look at where it’s led:
Just as Elvis and his ilk plumbed African-American musical traditions and turned them into mainstream rock & roll in the 1950s, moviemakers, TV producers, media people, and rock stars have turned entertainment on its head by freely mining the gay culture for its sarcasm and style, its glitter and grit, its secrets and celebrations. In 1995, the gay stream flows freely into the mainstream.
Just look around — look everywhere. Gay characters are multiplying on screens big and small. Comedy’s most popular styles now utilize the gay sensibility — a reliance on irony that’s omni present in products as varied as Letterman (not him, just his raised eyebrow) and The Lion King (in which Timon and Pumbaa are … well, whatever you want them to be). The old-fashioned gay-baiting humor of Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay has been rendered obsolete by gay-friendly entertainment. On Frasier, the hero inadvertently asks a guy for a date. On Roseanne, the heroine was quite purposefully kissed by a girl. On Broadway, gay-themed works are the most dominant genre, and for three seasons, gay-themed plays by gay playwrights (Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America and, most recently, Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!) have won Broadway’s top honors and scored movie deals for their authors.
The revolution has happened two ways: gradually and suddenly. As recently as 1984 Harvey Fierstein shocked the world by publicly thanking his lover on the CBS Tony Awards telecast. At this year’s Tonys, many such expressions of gentle demonstrativeness went almost unnoticed. In 1978, it seemed unthinkable that the charming French farce La Cage Aux Folles, about a nightclub owner and his drag-queen lover, could reach beyond audiences who didn’t mind subtitles. But in 1983 it became a hit Broadway musical, and next year it will become a major American movie — Birds of a Feather, starring Robin Williams and (in the dress) Nathan Lane. And in music, Elton John, k.d. lang, and Melissa Etheridge have done what was unthinkable until very recent memory: They’ve come out and continued to work. If anything, they’ve worked more. (Now Boy George is angling for a career revival by addressing his new album’s love songs to men.)
But gay culture has brought about even more basic changes — sometimes changes as fundamental as how things look. The erotic male form once strutted only in marginal venues–either below the mass-culture radar (all-male pornography) or above it (the walls of art museums). Now it’s right up there at your local mall, helping sell tickets to the year’s top-grossing film, Batman Forever. Chris O’Donnell’s batsuit features a strikingly commodious codpiece; and are we wrong, or does the Riddler have a little crush on Bruce Wayne? Batman Forever is, in fact, emblematic of the new, mutual inclusiveness — the give and take and take back — of gay and straight audiences. Its sex appeal bids for the attention of all sexual persuasions; so do its jokes, and the screen winks broadly in all directions.
What force roiled this sea change? A mission by Hollywood to (a) eradicate all forms of bigotry and homophobia, or (b) to destroy the values upon which society rests? Not on your lifestyle. Quite simply, gay sells. As the success of last year’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert will tell you, gold lamé on a man is as good as gold. So it’s no accident that advertising was at the vanguard of the gaying of America as the first business to realize that homosexuals comprised a very desirable demographic. Not the largest demographic, but one with powerful handfuls of disposable income.
The most striking and omnipresent outgrowth of that awakening has been the mass marketing of erotic male images. Calvin Klein pioneered the movement more than a decade ago by plastering Times Square with an enormous, indelible Bruce Weber billboard of a hunk in his underwear, hands creeping precariously close to his nether regions. Then, during the proliferation of daytime talk shows throughout the 1980s, male strippers began gyrating in middle-class, middle-American living rooms on a daily basis. Now straight men are expected to be just as moussed and buffed as their gay counterparts; and they are subtly pressured to emulate the exhibitionistic sex appeal of models like Marky Mark and Michael Bergin, who have posed seductively in ads intended to sell shorts not just to gay men, but to all men.
Heterosexual women have long been inveigled to buy lipstick worn by gorgeous models in advertising, but now Versace targets them with overtly homoerotic ads. Chalk it up to “lesbian chic,” a trend that was spawned as Madonna and Sandra Bernhard flirted in 1991’s Truth or Dare, grew as playfully ambiguous style arbiter Ingrid Casares began showing up in paparazzi photos everywhere, and crested with Cindy Crawford shaving k.d. lang’s face on the August 1993 issue of Vanity Fair. This curious media trend may have passed, but lesbians have kept their media cachet. Says Sarah Pettit, editor of the lesbian and gay newsmagazine Out: “Straight women are looking around thinking, ‘Is she one? Am I one?’ And they’re kind of titillated by it.”
Gradually, the entertainment industry came to realize that gay can sell a niche-market art film (such as the minor summer hit The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love), as well as help to sell a film with crossover appeal (Four Weddings and a Funeral). Androgyny chic has ushered in a new brand of movie star: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Keanu Reeves would all once have been called sissies. In music, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe use sexual ambiguity as a marketing tool — enigmas wrapped in mysteries, they’re all things to all persuasions.
Which leads to any number of bewildering questions. Stallone may be straight and RuPaul may be gay, but what about everybody in between? There’s Frasier’s brother Niles, for example, and the slightly drag-queeny dames of The Nanny and Absolutely Fabulous. Not gay per se, but something. “It’s all become one bright pop blur,” marvels gay playwright-screenwriter Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values; Jeffrey). Out concurred: “It’s still a straight world, but straight isn’t looking quite as narrow these days.”
Nowhere is the phenomenon more evident than in the proliferation of gay characters in film and TV. And no longer are these characters solely the province of one “very special episode” per year. They populate Roseanne, and have for a while. NBC’s smash Friends features a recurring lesbian character (David Schwimmer’s intensely sympathetic ex-wife) and her lover. NYPD Blue‘s gay male replacement receptionist (whose boyfriend happens to be a cop) proved so popular last season that the show’s producers are bringing him back this fall. And the most conscientious writers and producers pride themselves on making these characters real — not just real funny. Explains David Lee, the gay cocreator of Frasier and director of last season’s accidental date episode, “There was humor in the situation [the characters] found themselves in, but you weren’t laughing at anyone because he was gay.” The episode sparked high ratings and is up for Emmys both for its script, by gay writer Joe Keenan, and its direction.
Of course, humor is always in the eye of the beholder, and as the culture has become increasingly gay-friendly, purveyors of product must walk a political tightrope. Are the drag queens of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar a celebration of life outside the closet? Or are the straight actors in sequins performing the gay equivalent of a minstrel show? Depends on whom you ask. And on TV, it’s no easier. The controversial “Men on Film” segment of Fox’s In Living Color (1990-94), in which two flaming black queens offered a gay perspective on movies, sharply divided even the gay community. “I used to watch it with my black gay friends and just hoot,” says Donald Suggs, the associate director of the watchdog group Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). “Then one night I watched it in a straight bar. Those people weren’t laughing at it for the same reasons I was.”
The new fall season won’t make it any easier. The pilot script for the Frasier team’s new fall series, The Pursuit of Happiness, about a well-meaning lawyer, has already caused some concern in the industry. In the first episode, a non-stereotypical gay character comes out to his friend. Should be funny, but it’s not. The coming out is shown not as an important step for the gay man but as yet another problem for his straight friend — a punchline in someone else’s bad day.
Conversely, a line punctuated by an antigay epithet in ABC’s pilot of The Naked Truth, about a tabloid photographer (Tea Leoni), is getting some laughs — even from gay viewers. “He said [my cigarette] smoke made the Persian rug stench-ridden and malodorous,” says Leoni, grousing about her former husband. “What a homo.” Leoni’s hilariously petulant delivery seems less an endorsement of bigotry than an expression of seething impatience with her ex. But the line is still a tough call. Some viewers will laugh out of shock that a sophisticated, educated woman says something so politically incorrect. Others will cheer in the same way that racists admired All in the Family‘s Archie Bunker, not realizing that he was designed as a parody of themselves. Who’s right? Who knows?
The revolution has been slower to take hold at movie studios, which all but banned gay characters after the dismal failure of Making Love, the oh-so-serious 1982 drama in which Michael Ontkean left Kate Jackson for Harry Hamlin (actually, audiences shied away from the film because it stank). Still, by the early 1990s, it seemed almost every movie hero or heroine had a lovable gay neighbor–a lovelorn friend in Frankie & Johnny, a flower-toting sissy in The Prince of Tides. But not until 1993 did a major studio, TriStar, release a film hinging on gay characters — Philadelphia, which was criticized within the gay community for playing it safe and never even giving Hanks and his lover Antonio Banderas an on-screen kiss. Didn’t matter. The $197 million it grossed worldwide was the sound of cash registers ringing: The right stars could sell tickets whether they were playing gay or not. (And anyone who believes that playing a gay character can hurt a career should note the recent resumes of Hanks and Banderas.)
Even many recent depictions of gay characters — the pussycat-stroking upstairs neighbor in 1992’s Single White Female, for instance — seem positively Cro-Magnon today, so rapidly are perceptions evolving. In Home for the Holidays, an upcoming family comedy-drama directed by Jodie Foster, Robert Downey Jr. plays a gay character whose life and sexuality are woven realistically and seamlessly into the film. And producers who showcase antigay images in any form, consciously or not, risk facing organized protests. Take Mel Gibson — please. Or so said gay groups earlier this year when the actor-turned-director (who has received flak for publicly expressing his disdain for homosexuals in the past) depicted Braveheart‘s Prince Edward as a rouged-up, mincing queen (a depiction, it should be noted, that might have a basis in historical fact). Audiences laughed and cheered when the king tossed Edward’s male lover out a window to his death — a reaction that upset even the film’s screenwriter, Randall Wallace. “My expectation was that there would be shock,” he says, “certainly not one of people applauding.”
“It’s not that there aren’t plenty of dreadful gay people,” says Rudnick. “But sometimes the straight world doesn’t understand that for a very long time that’s the only way they were portrayed. You can afford plenty of gay villains, as long as there’s some balance.” Rudnick’s Jeffrey, a low-budget independent film based on his 1993 Off Broadway play, is probably an indication of the shape of things to come. It’s drawing long lines in its limited release, and it’s cast with an impressive lot of stars playing a balanced array of gay characters, from Patrick Stewart as a likable (and stereotypically flamboyant) interior decorator to Steven Weber (Wings’ womanizing Brian) as a straitlaced young gay Manhattanite who swears off sex for fear of AIDS.
It is, in fact, the AIDS epidemic that has exponentially increased the visibility of gays in the mass media. As performers like Elton John, Etheridge, and lang came out of the closet, other doors of acceptance opened. MTV viewers wrote hundreds of letters each week to Pedro Zamora, last year’s Real World gay resident, as he wrangled with Puck and battled AIDS. And as coming out became more common, there was a crucial shift in the perception of those inveterate culture consumers, the baby boomers: According to an Entertainment Weekly/Gallup poll, 71% of 30- to 49-year-olds say they count a gay person among their relatives, coworkers, or friends.
“AIDS has given gay life a very serious subtext,” says Rudnick. “It makes it impossible to use gay characters as only comic relief.” And just as it’s impossible to define what is funny (or even politically correct) when incorporating a gay reference into a punchline, it has become impossible to define pop material as gay or straight. For straight audiences are not only embracing gay characters, they’re also laughing at the gay sensibility, which is far less easy to spot than, say, a drag queen. Both Frasier (about a straight man who takes in his retired father) and Roseanne (about a couple trying hard to raise a family while balancing on the poverty line) are among the Nielsen family comedies with substantial crossover appeal to gay audiences — and not just because they have incorporated gay characters. “Frasier is about a father who says, ‘How did I get a son like this?’ and a guy who says, ‘How did I come from a father like this?’” says the show’s cocreator, Lee. “That has a tremendous resonance to a lot of gay people.”
The gay sensibility was born from the plight of the disenfranchised — gay people are aware, as much as anyone, that life according to The Brady Bunch exists nowhere outside a Hollywood soundstage. At its most outrageous, the aesthetic flares into camp — a comedy genre that ridicules with both affection and anger — and is personified by drag queens. But today, camp isn’t simply an in-joke among gay audiences; it has gone mainstream, too. Last spring’s send-up The Brady Bunch Movie (in which a gay teen had a crush on an oblivious Marcia) was a triumph of the new camp, a shiny subversion of mainstream Americana that proved a hit with mainstream Americans. (Last year’s equally campy Ed Wood and its transvestism, however, drew only critical raves — no audiences.)
Of course, camp has always been with us. It’s there, for example, in the encyclopedia of old Hollywood films — Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Call of the Wild, Valley of the Dolls — that make up designer Isaac Mizrahi’s points of reference and inspiration in the new, take-no-prisoners fashion documentary Unzipped. But never before has camp been intentionally manufactured and marketed wholesale, as in Absolutely Fabulous, Comedy Central’s British import with drag-queenish heroines (yes, women can play drag queens too) drinking and cursing and trashing everything that Ralph Reed holds dear. And an American Ab Fab is coming soon, under the guidance of — who else? — Roseanne.
The route from cult success to commercial smash is not an uncommon one. Audiences have been preconditioned for Universal’s glittery American drag road comedy To Wong Foo by last year’s glittery Australian drag road comedy, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. That route, says conservative movie critic Michael Medved, suggests less a cultural revolution than Hollywood business as usual. “Part of this is the tremendous success of Mrs. Doubtfire and The Crying Game,” he says. “People in Hollywood are not tremendously sophisticated when it comes to discerning new trends. You’re talking about as Neanderthal an approach as saying ‘Hey, look, they made $200 million by dressing Robin Williams up as a girl and $100 million by dressing Jaye Davidson up as a girl.’ They saw that drag was exploitable.”
True enough, as far as Hollywood goes. But something more than exploitation is going on in the rest of the country. In an era when Americans, especially young ones, are more taken by the cool detachment of cyberspace than with either political party, their own economic futures, whoever happens to be President, and the entire news media, “independent” or “alternative” anything begins to look a lot more attractive. And the dry, smart outsider mentality represented by much of gay culture seems an interesting stance from which to view the world.
The new popularity of that disenfranchised viewpoint has, in fact, altered the kind of drag we see in To Wong Foo, which, though sanitized, is vastly different from the antiquated version practiced by Flip Wilson and Milton Berle (and by Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire). Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and Patrick Swayze play openly gay men flouncing their feminine side and venting their rage at social norms — not unlike RuPaul. Berle put on dresses simply to mock women — call it a sight gag at best, misogyny at worst. Martin Lawrence, playing his own big-boned female neighbor Sheneneh on Martin, carries on Berle’s tradition, straight drag, if you will.
Even the creation of gay icons among movie stars isn’t what it used to be, now that the rest of the country wants in on it. Gay audiences have always had a soft spot for certain performers — Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, James Dean — but the attraction was an in-joke among these stars’ gay fans, who turned these curious heroes and heroines into almost mythic beings based on their masculine/feminine personas or operatically tragic lives. But the current crop of heterosexual performers hitting it big with gay audiences may not spawn the next generation of dragsters; if they’ve got dual appeal, they get the joke and it’s fine with them. Sharon Stone — a latter-day Joan Crawford — has captured the hearts of gay men by taking roles that cast her as a lethal threat to straight, macho men. (Asked to explain her crossover appeal, Stone shrugs, “In my work, I try to celebrate life without judgment.”) Comedian Jon Stewart’s now-defunct talk show was embraced by gay audiences because, he theorizes, “it sort of had an outsider’s appeal.” Sarah Jessica Parker has publicly expressed her desire to be a homosexual icon, and Mary Stuart Masterson proudly acknowledges her lesbian following.
Based on the results of Entertainment Weekly‘s survey of attitudes toward gay characters and openly gay performers, one thing is clear: The majority of Americans are not condemning this revolution — most don’t even think about it at all. That could change, for recently the wheel has taken at least one wrong turn. The current offender: Calvin Klein, whose homoerotic clothing ads during the last decade have been a powerful influence in eroticizing American culture. In one of Klein’s new TV spots, which feature both young men and women, an unseen male director poses questions to an uncomfortably young and seemingly impressionable male model. On Aug. 28, the ad campaign was hastily withdrawn after a hail of criticism that the advertisements bordered on child pornography. A statement from Calvin Klein, Inc., maintained that the ads’ message was misunderstood. In fact, the problem may have been that the message was understood all too clearly.
“I am generally upset, as a parent and as a critic, with the sexualization of everything,” says Medved, “particularly when it extends to children.” And even outspoken gay journalist Michelangelo Signorile, an early proponent of outing public figures — and long a voice in favor of Klein’s homoerotic imagery — tends toward agreement. “In the new ads, I think he has crossed a line,” says Signorile. “For Calvin Klein to be treating [pedophilia] lightly and almost in a camp way is really reprehensible.”
The ads, of course, are a clear example of how easily distorted the gay world can be when it’s seen through the prism of pop images. The Hollywood axiom that there are no good roles for women, for example, extends to the relatively small number of lesbian films in the gay niche-cinema market, and lesbian TV roles are also few in number. A disproportionately high number of gay men in films are depicted as suffering from AIDS, whereas the issue of coming out to one’s friends and family — a crucial aspect of every gay person’s life — has never been satisfactorily dealt with in movies or on TV. And the sexual side of gay life is still an area that Hollywood tends to treat awkwardly at best; although portrayals of gay men as sexual predators (as in 1980’s Cruising) tend to be a thing of the past, more often than not, contemporary gay characters tend to be neutered, limited to longing looks and chaste kisses. (Then again, pop culture has never reflected straight culture altogether accurately, either.)
But just as negative pop stereotypes of black characters in old Hollywood (Gone With the Wind) gave way to dull black plaster saints in the 1960s (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), and then, finally, more realistic treatment, so will gay characters and themes and punchlines evolve. And the voices opposing this cultural shift — whether political, personal, or just nervous — are being drowned out. Not by the sound of disco, or the roar of drag queens, or the relentless engine that drives Hollywood. But by consumers at Tower Records in Seattle, by moviegoers at cineplexes in Buffalo, by TV viewers in their Amarillo living rooms all of whom are putting their time and their money where their interests lie. Entertainment Weekly‘s poll shows that 63 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, perhaps the most avid purchasers of entertainment, don’t object to seeing a same-sex kiss on screen when they go to the movies, and nearly 18 percent would like to see more gay characters and situations. In short, this revolution is the only kind Hollywood can trust — one driven by the marketplace.
The commercialization of gay culture is probably more than a passing fad — after all, the closer you cut to the heart of consumerism, the more acceptance, if not outright enthusiasm, reveals itself. But even those who think the novelty will eventually wear off may find themselves in a different world when it does. It may well be a more tolerant and compassionate place, at least for one minority. And wouldn’t that be absolutely fabulous?
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The 50 best gay songs to celebrate World Pride
Get ready to celebrate with these 50 gay songs and anthems to stir the heart and move the hips. Happy Pride, everyone!
The arrival of June means another Gay Pride month! What better way to celebrate than to crank up a playlist of the best gay songs? Recent years have seen nearly 40,000 people taking to the streets for the Gay Pride march in NYC, so you can expect the weekend’s best parties to be just as raucous. There will be all the classics—yup, „Y.M.C.A.”—as well as newer cuts, all about fighting back and being yourself. This playlist represents all those different eras and genres—from the best techno songs to indie diddies from the best ’90s bands. So hit play, and let your rainbow flag fly.
Example sentences from the Web for Gay Nineties
“I do not support gay marriages being recognized in Florida,” he wrote Andrew Walther of Sanford.
That man was Xavier Cortada, a gay man who wrote of his frustration that he and his partner of eight years were unable to marry.
Some gay apps, like the newer Mister, have not subscribed to the community/tribe model.
Meanwhile, in Florida, Bush was flooded with questions about whether gay marriage could possibly come to the Sunshine State.
In the 70s, this myth kept openly gay people out of teaching positions.
Am I not in France—gay, delightful France—partaking of the kindness and civility of the country?
After a moment’s silence, the cavaliers both burst into a gay laugh.
Never had Tom seen his gay and careless cousin in such guise: he was restless, silent, intense and inarticulate.
If it had not been for the presence of Mademoiselle Stéphanie, it would not have been gay for Aristide.
The box of the diplomatic corps was just opposite us, and our gay little Mrs. F. sat in it dressed in white satin.
The nation’s first gay and lesbian talk radio show, The Gay 90s, aired from downtown Cleveland, Ohio and started off with a bang. Not literally, but given the bomb threat called in before the show’s premier broadcast on WHK 1420 AM it was a possibility. Despite the potential danger, The Gay 90s aired as scheduled on March 26, 1993, and became the country’s first commercial live, “call in” radio program by, for, and about the gay and lesbian community. Given Cleveland’s history of settling disputes with explosives, coupled with the homophobic atmosphere surrounding lesbians and gay men at the time, the threat was taken seriously. Not willing to risk the consequences of ignoring the threat, the Cleveland Police Department provided the show’s staff with personal escorts to and from the radio station for the next two weeks. The police attention and protection was motivated, in part, by the station’s location: Cleveland’s iconic Tower City Center. Thankfully, no bomb exploded at Tower City that night or any of the following nights during The Gay 90s six-year run. It was, instead, the radio show itself that blew down barriers, shattered myths and united Clevelander’s gay, straight and “in between” communities in a remarkably peaceful way.
Looking back, it’s not surprising that the nation’s first gay and lesbian talk show was hosted by Cleveland native Buck Harris, a man at ease being the “first” in a number of public roles. In 1984, Governor Richard Celeste appointed Harris as the Ohio Department of Health’s gay health consultant, the first state in the nation to create such a position in response to the growing AIDS crisis. Shortly after his appointment, the Plain Dealer asked Harris for an interview regarding the crisis, insisting on referring to him as a “homosexual” (as opposed to gay) consultant, as was the newspaper’s policy at the time. Harris told the paper if they did not use his proper title, there would be no interview. The paper relented and, in 1985, for the first time used the word “gay” instead of the inflammatory alternative. A few short months later Harris made the P.D.’s 1986 “Happy New Year” list, the first openly gay person to make the cut. Later that year, Cleveland Magazine named Harris one of the 86 most interesting Clevelanders – again, a first for any openly gay Clevelander. And the bomb threat that greeted Harris and his staff that first radio broadcast? Not a first. As an outspoken and unapologetic AIDS activist, Harris was accustomed getting death threats. Escorted by police and armed with his brave “chin up” attitude, Harris and his crew aired the live broadcast as scheduled.
Bomb threat notwithstanding, The Gay 90s aired during a time of national crisis for the LGBT community, as the AIDS epidemic was nearing its worst. In 1993, tennis star Arthur Ashe died (six weeks before the first show’s first broadcast); President Clinton established the White House Office of National AIDS Policy; Tom Hanks starred in “Philadelphia,” Hollywood’s first major film on AIDS; and the play “Angels in America” won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. There was a lot to talk about. Regardless of the topic, which ranged from local politics to the art scene and everything in between, Harris maintains that “a good slice of gay culture” was served, often with a side of humor. The first half of the weekly two-hour program involved guest interviews, and there were notable ones including, in Harris’s words, “movers, shakers and founders of the gay civil rights movement.” Among them were U.S. Congressman Barney Frank; gay rights activist Frank Kameny; two-time Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter Janis Ian, and four-time Tony award winning playwright Harvey Fierstein. Arbitron, the radio ratings agency, estimated that 20,000 listeners tuned in to The Gay 90s on a typical night – perhaps more on a clear night when the AM signal strength was strong enough to reach listeners as far away as Akron or Canton, maybe even the “boondocks,” Harris quips. Some listeners, he believed, were petrified to actually call in – fearing that someone might recognize their voice. Some took the chance, but changed their name. Not all, of course, but the fear of being identified as queer was strong enough to paralyze some listeners, preventing them from calling – and for good reason. Jobs, homes, families – even lives were at risk. One fourteen-year-old gay listener, however, summoned the courage to call in one night. The young man told Harris that he was thinking of suicide but changed his mind after listening to the show. Listening to The Gay 90s the young man realized there was a “world waiting for him,” where he fit in – brought to him from a radio station in downtown Cleveland.
After two and a half years broadcasting from WHK on Friday nights and getting preempted for sports broadcasting on more than one occasion, Harris moved to another station, WERE 1300 AM. From there, The Gay 90s aired on Sunday evenings – a time slot Harris preferred, believing that his target audience was more likely to be home (and tuned in), not partying in one of Cleveland’s many gay bars. Harris once commented, “Our entrée into the gay community was through the doors of gay bars”. Not that he was opposed to gay bars – after all, he was a former bartender at the locally famous gay bar, Twiggy’s, and knew the bar’s value as a community anchor. But Harris also knew Cleveland’s gay community needed an alternative to the bar scene, and needed, literally, a voice. Seeing the opportunity and the need, Harris offered his voice as he opened the every show with this greeting: “Good evening Cleveland… Welcome to The Gay 90s, the voice of Northeast Ohio’s gay and lesbian community. It is the intent of this show to provide programming that represents the diversity of our gay and lesbian community and reveal the deep cultural and historical contributions that for too long have gone unrecognized. The opinions expressed are those of the host and guest and not necessarily of WERE or its management – as a matter of fact, probably not. If you are a member of our community, a friend, or just a curious listener we certainly welcome you and please give us a call this evening at 578-1300. If you’re not a friend, don’t tune in, don’t call and find some other way to torture yourself. And a word about our advertisers: unless otherwise stated, you can assume their sexual orientation to be either bi or gay or straight.“
If the show started with a (figurative) bang, according to Harris, it “went out with a whimper.” He compared the show’s finale on July 11, 1999, to the last episode of the Mary Tyler Moore television show in 1977 when Moore simply turned off the lights and left the building – sad and anticlimactic. The legacy of the radio program, however, is anything but. In the show’s six-and-a-half-year run, thousands of Clevelanders of every flavor listened, learned, and participated in the nation’s first live gay talk show, bringing together gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, and, importantly, straight listeners. Bringing these diverse groups together to listen and learn from each other bridged, at least some degree, a very large gap, and along with the work of many, many others, helped lay the foundation for the LGBT civil rights momentum we witness today.
When asked if he would consider doing it again, Harris, although flattered by the question, declines to entertain the idea of hosting another gay and lesbian-exclusive radio program. “The world has changed, and I’m not sure we need that today.” Perhaps he’s right.
In an interview several years after the show last broadcast, Harris reflected on how far things have come since the show first aired in 1993. He says, “It’s exciting in this day and age to see organizations like the lesbian and gay service center that are strong, vibrant, and in storefronts. Before…. you would never have the rainbow flag hanging out in front of the Center… it would have been dangerous to do so… I can rest comfortably knowing I had some impact on helping those organizations grow.”
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1. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor
It starts off slowly, shrouded in fear; then the beat kicks in, the song builds in confidence, and by the end, now backed by a string section, it’s a full-bore disco anthem of self-assurance. On its beautiful face, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is about a woman getting over the guy who done her wrong; but in 1978, as gay liberation was gathering steam in heated nightclubs around the world, it also played like an declaration of hard-won pride (“I used to cry / But now I hold my head up high”) and independence from the hetero norm (“I’m not that chained-up little person still in love with you”). In the 1980s, when AIDS wiped out tens of thousands of those celebrants, the song took on new layers of resonance. Today „I Will Survive“ carries all of that baggage, and lifts it up along with the spirits of anyone who hears its message. Did you think we’d crumble? Did you think we’d lay down and die? Think again. We’re going to dance.—Adam Feldman
3. “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland
For generations who grew up as “friends of Dorothy,” yearning to escape into a realm of Technicolor urban fantasy, the tacit gay national anthem was Garland’s wistful ballad from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz (with a gorgeous melody by Harold Arlen and touching lyrics by social activist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg). Garland’s later performances of the song on TV and in concert—older, battered by life, but still dreaming of a happier place—had even greater power. But even now that so many closet doors have opened, “Over the Rainbow”—and don’t you dare call it “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” lest someone threaten to revoke your gay card—still inspires pride and reverence. Listening to it feels like saluting the rainbow flag.—Adam Feldman
4. “Vogue” by Madonna
„Look around: Everywhere you turn is heartache.“ That’s not exactly a fluffy opening shot for a dance-pop song—and that’s the point. Recorded at the height of America’s AIDS crisis and inspired by New York’s underground gay ball scene (famously documented in the 1991 film Paris Is Burning), Madonna’s deep-house–inflected 1990 smash commands you to leave the heavy stuff aside—if only for a few minutes—and find salvation on the dance floor. Nearly a quarter century later, this classic track from one of the most gay-beloved artists of all time sounds no less imperative.—Ethan LaCroix
5. “Black Me Out” by Against Me!
Singer Laura Jane Grace has always been a revolutionary—see songs like „Baby I’m an Anarchist“—but nothing rebelled as deeply against the heteropatriarchal terrain of the punk music mainstream than her explorations of coming out as a trans woman on her pivotal album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. This song isn’t a feel-good tune—it’s a glaring middle finger to those that keep you from claiming and presenting your authentic self. Bash back and scream along: „I want to piss on the walls of your house.“
7. “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross
Yes, this song is about that kind of „coming out.“ Chic’s Nile Rodgers was inspired to write this funky 1980 gem for Diana Ross after seeing multiple drag queens dressed as the iconic singer at a gay disco in New York. For her part, Ross was in the process of extracting herself from her long relationship with Motown when „I’m Coming Out“ arrived on the charts, giving the song additional significance for the music legend. Today, Ross still opens her shows with „I’m Coming Out,“ and the song remains a quintessential anthem of liberation—gay or otherwise.—Ethan LaCroix
8. “Y.M.C.A.” by Village People
For any guy who’s ever wanted to be (or sleep with) a cowboy, cop or leather-clad biker, the Village People reign supreme as gay-anthem chart toppers. Songs like „Macho Man,“ „Go West,“ „Cruisin'“ and „In the Navy“ are full of double entendres, and 1978’s „Y.M.C.A.“—which became one of the most popular singles of the 1970s—is no different. In fact, the Young Men’s Christian Association was so appalled at the song’s implications that it threatened to sue, until it noticed that membership had significantly increased in the wake of the tune’s success. Turns out any press is good press—eh, boys?—Kate Wertheimer