& & by Kathy M. Newman & & & &

In a blow to camp everywhere, NBC has cancelled Titans -- that night-time Aaron Spelling soap about a corporate family gone bad, complete with over-the-top acting, illegitimate pregnancies and Yasmin Bleeth in a gold bikini. I loved it. I couldn't help myself.

But elsewhere on the television dial camp is becoming queen -- with not one but three major networks producing shows with gay leads. As mainstream tastes run, these shows make up a Goldilocks trio. There is Showtime's sexually shocking Queer as Folk (filmed in Toronto but set in Pittsburgh) is "too hot." Then there's John Goodman's dubious portrayal of a beer drinking, flannel-shirt wearing gay man who has left L.A. for his hometown of Normal, Ohio, which is "too cold" -- so cold, in fact, that it's already been cancelled. And finally there's NBC's Will and Grace, with its three Emmys and coveted Thursday night 9 pm slot, and it's apparently "just right."

Queer as Folk is groundbreaking: the show puts a gay community in the center of its story, making gay sex both visible and erotic. The sex has been toned down from the British original upon which it is based, but Midwestern newspapers claim that its sexual plots will alienate "mainstream" viewers. And while the program might confirm some of the more negative and conservative stereotypes about gay life (that it's mostly about meaningless sex), I found my own (generally repressed) prejudices and fears about homosexuality refreshingly challenged by the naked male bodies and passionate kissing. It's a far cry from the long-suffering Matt of Melrose Place, who never got any more nooky than a bear hug.

Normal, Ohio, has been both celebrated and chastised for being too, well, "normal." As one reviewer suggested, the plot revolved around a one-joke concept: "Wouldn't it be hilarious if John Goodman were gay?" To its short-lived credit, the show suggested that perfectly "normal" people ARE gay -- or, in other words, that it might be normal to be gay. On the other hand, by making Goodman's sexuality the object of constant negative humor (his father calls him a "trapeze artist" and a "piccolo player"), the show relies on the comedic convention in which being gay is both funny and wrong. The show also denies that there might be something called "gay culture" or a "gay community" anywhere in middle America -- by alienating Goodman at the center of a "normal," heterosexual and Midwestern family.

Will and Grace, which has been rewarded with a new slot in the midst of NBC's Thursday Must-See-TV lineup, has come up with a formula that makes being gay funny and mostly right. While Will has been a near nun for three seasons, and while some viewers keep waiting for the episode in which Will and Grace finally get together, the real stars of the show, Emmy-winning Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes as Karen and Jack remind us that camp is a cultural style that doesn't have to be put down to be funny. Moreover, the struggle between Will as the "straight-acting" gay man, and Jack as the flaming queen is an important reminder that the gay community is diverse, and that anti-gay prejudice is not the exclusive province of straight people.

Do these shows mean that television is finally a safe place to be gay? Gays on TV have had a harder time even than other discriminated-against minorities, such as African Americans. According to Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television, the first visibly "queer" character on television was a post-war professional wrestler named Gorgeous George. Rumored to be straight off-screen, he created a gay wrestling persona so popular that soon "swish wrestlers" were "legion."

Since the debut of Gorgeous George in 1947, the record is not impressive; even in recent years, television has continued to depict lesbians as psycho killers and gay men as tragic AIDS victims. Rarely are gays on TV fully human.

And thus these programs are progress. Cultural representation is linked to political representation, even as the relationship between the two can be complicated. We can watch men having sex on television while real men having sex with each other can be arrested for doing so. We can laugh at the camp antics of Will and Jack while denying our own homophobia: a social disease for which hard self-reflection and political activism -- and not just television -- will be the ultimate cure.

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