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How The Entertainment Industry Helped Influence Support For LGBT Issues


The idea of same-sex marriage has enjoyed a rapid surge in public acceptance in the U.S. over the last few decades. One theory for why that's happened so quickly is that American's have become more understanding of LGBT issues as they become more common themes on TV shows or in movies. Tim Gray is the senior vice president of Variety, and he oversaw a special issue coming out tomorrow all about the entertainment industry's role in this change in perception. Tim Gray, welcome to the program.

TIM GRAY: Oh, thanks. I'm very happy to be here. Thank you.

RATH: So on the small screen right now, there are a lot of out LGBT characters on a variety of shows. But it wasn't that long ago that you could barely find a gay character on TV. When did the shift in attitude start?

GRAY: With this issue, we talked to at least 80 people. And a lot of them cited Ellen DeGeneres' coming out in 1997 as a turning point.


ELLEN DEGENERES: I'm so afraid to tell people. I mean, I'm just - Susan, I'm gay.


GRAY: And the next year, "Will And Grace" debuted. And, you know, as somebody said, there's something very intimate about television. It's like you're sitting there in your underwear eating dinner with gay people, and you think oh, OK, they're not that different from me.

RATH: Does my memory make sense on this? It felt like in the '70s there were some shows like "All In The Family." So later on there was "Taxi" that made reference in a progressive way to gay issues. And then it felt like things got quiet for a while after that.

GRAY: No, you're absolutely right. I interviewed Norman Lear for the Variety issue, and he introduced a friend of Archie Bunker's in 1971 who was gay. It was like the first positive gay person on TV, because there'd been a couple who were like psycho killers or like needed to go to the psychiatrist. But this was the first positive one.


PHILIP CAREY: (As Steve) How long you known me? Ten, 12 years?

CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Yeah.

CAREY: (As Steve) In all that time, did I ever mention a woman?

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Well, what difference does that make? You're a bachelor.

CAREY: (As Steve) So?


O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) I know, but bachelors - they're always acting kind of private.

CAREY: (As Steve) Exactly.

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Come on, Steve.


GRAY: But then things regressed back in the '80s. And, you know, what - we interview also for the issue RuPaul. He said I was around in the '70s, and we thought the world is ours, the world has changed. And he said windows, they open and shut. And then he said in the '70s, the window was wide open and then it shut again.

RATH: You wrote a piece in this issue called "Liberal Hollywood: Myth Versus Reality." And that plays down this notion that of course Hollywood has embraced the LGBT community. They're so liberal.

GRAY: You know, the truth of it is Hollywood is driven by money more than anything else - and especially in the film industry. If you look at all the summer movies with all the superhero movies, how many gay characters are in those movies? I think it's about zero. And it's because they're afraid to take a chance here.

You know, people kind of think Hollywood has this liberal agenda that they're pushing. And it's like, actually, the real agenda that they're pushing is making more money and being safe. TV took a chance because they needed so much product. It's like look, let's aim for a small niche audience and hope we get 'em.

RATH: The first article in this issue is states - and let me quote this - "the entertainment industry has helped change hearts and minds, but the extent of its contribution is a matter of debate." Can you unpack the debate?

GRAY: Variety did a poll, and people said the number one reason that they've opened up their mind about same-sex rights is knowing somebody who is gay. And so the debate is OK, did Ellen DeGeneres and "Will And Grace" and "Modern Family" make them feel more comfortable about coming out? Maybe - you know, it's very complicated.

But when I talked to Norman Lear and I said do you think you changed things, he said look, we're talking about 2000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition. I'd be pretty presumptuous to say my half hour made the big difference. But he said we got the conversation going.

RATH: Tim Gray is a senior vice president with Variety magazine. Tim, thank you very much.

GRAY: I'm really happy to be here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.