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November 23, 2009

Television Community's LGBT Members Talk Biz

Spotlight on work of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and
transgenders above and below the line

Libby Slate

Wanting to be portrayed accurately on television and treated fairly behind the scenes is, of course, serious business.

But in the hands of irreverent moderator Bruce Vilanch, a program devoted to the issues and experiences of those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender television community was also highly entertaining.

Having just returned, he informed the audience, from participating in a gay polygamy sect’s marriage ceremony in Texas, Vilanch was ready to take on what he termed, “a landmark evening.”

Presented in May 2008 by the Television Academy’s Diversity Committee and the Producers peer group, “LGBT: Above and Below the Line in Prime,” brought a stellar panel to the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre.

Among guest panelists were:

  • Billy Crystal, who played Cathryn Damon’s gay son Jodie Dallas on Soap
  • Celebrity Fit Club host Ant
  • transgender actresses Alexandra Billings of ER and

    Dirty Sexy Money's Candis Cayne
  • heterosexual actress Tracy Scoggins of Dante’s Cove
  • Dirty Sexy Money creator Craig Wright
  • Brothers & Sisters writer David Marshall Grant
  • The Big Gay Sketch Show director Amanda Bearse
  • The DL Chronicles creators Deondray Gossett and Quincy LeNear
  • Showtime Networks entertainment president Robert Greenblatt
  • here! Networks original programming senior vice president Meredith Kadlec
  • LOGO vice president of originals Dave Mace

GLAAD president Neil Giuliano provided opening remarks, an overview of LGBT characters and situations on television: Soap's Jodie, Dynasty’s Stephen Carrington, Melrose Place’s Matt Fielding, Ellen’s coming out and just this past season, the commitment ceremony between Kevin and Scotty on Brothers & Sisters.

“This change is not by accident,” Giuliano noted, “We see producers, industry leaders, smart business people creating new networks [here! and LOGO], because they know there are people out there who want to watch."

"Our visibility in the media helps our advancement culturally," he continued. "People’s minds are changed when they’re exposed to fair and accurate images on television.”

Crystal was a comedian on the rise when he was spotted on The Tonight Show in 1977 and asked to read for the Soap pilot.

“I thought it was a brilliant character,” he said. “It seemed to me we could do something really creative with this character.

“The press was kind,” Crystal added. “My relatives were not. Some of it was awkward – in the studio, as well.

The fellow playing my lover, Bob Seagren, was an Olympic gold medal-winning pole vaulter. When you’re saying, ‘I love you’ to a man, and you’re also a man, the giggles and nervous laughter are hard to take. The audience was nervous and skittish.”

Home viewers, though, were supportive: in season three, when Jodie wanted to adopt a child, fan mail ran three to one in favor.

Ten years after Soap’s premiere, Bearse began playing a wife on Married…with Children. Nowadays, she keeps her comedy instincts sharp at the helm of  LOGO’s The Big Gay Sketch Show. “We’re trying to have a sense of humor,” she says. “There’s all this political import going on in entertainment, but we can laugh. We’re part of the human race.”

Being an accepted part of the human race was a concern for a number of now-out panelists who struggled with hiding their sexuality. Grant, whose 1989 appearance as a gay man in bed with his lover on thirtysomething caused advertisers to pull commercials, admitted he was “terrified” that he wouldn’t get acting jobs if people thought he were gay.

And, said LeNear of himself and longtime partner Gossett, “We were afraid of facing the African-American community of working actors.” But when their series was picked up by here! they thought, “Can we be the creators of the DL Chronicles and be on the down low? Work pulled us out of the closet.”

There was no hiding for the flamboyant Ant, who said he had a role model in “the center square,” aka Paul Lynde of The Hollywood Squares. Billings mentioned that she and Cayne had no role models: “We’ve really had to invent an image.”

With Showtime’s Queer as Folk gone and The L Word leaving next year, Greenblatt believes that future shows will be less LBGT-centric and more like Brothers & Sisters: “I think it’s an evolution,” he said.

"Moving to bring gay characters as part of the fabric of shows," Greenblatt explained, " I think that’s even better. People don’t say, ‘Oh, that lesbian show.’ The more that happens, the better off we are.”

Indeed, observed Grant, “Culture and society are catching up."

"We had two women from the Midwest visiting the set," Grant recalled. "One said, ‘Here’s where the wedding took place!’ The other said, ‘Calista’s?’ [Flockhart’s character, Kitty, to Rob Lowe’s Senator McAllister].  ‘No! Kevin’s.’ She didn’t say, ‘The gay wedding.’”

Steven Wishnoff produced the evening. Candace Bond Mckeever, Susan Nessanbaum-Goldberg and Marcelino Ford-Livene co-chair the Diversity committee. Kevin Hamburger and John A. Ziffren are Producers peer group governors. Television Week, published by Chuck Ross, underwrites the Academy’s diversity initiatives.

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