For the eight years of the show’s run, real-life couple and co-stars of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, never once shared a bed while the cameras were rolling. The epidemic of separate beds, even for married couples, permeated television in the early days of television broadcasting. When I first heard of the “separate beds epidemic,” I remember laughing. But I slowly realized that popular media still continues to desexualize queer couples portrayed on television and in the cinema by not allowing them to be as unapologetically sexual as they allow heterosexual pairings.
Keeping with representation in sitcoms, one of the most famous desexualized gay couples on television is the duo of Cameron and Mitchell in the critically-acclaimed hit, Modern Family. During a HuffPost Live interview on gay men’s media representation, Madison Moore, staff writer at Thought Catalog, sounded off on Modern Family‘s representation of Cam and Mitch, saying, “TV always wants to show the safest version of a gay male couple” (Zepps). Zach Strafford, editor of BOYS: An Anthology, agreed when they said, “A lot of fat gay men in the media are used as punchlines. Cam…is very desexualized. You don’t really see them kiss or he and his partner being sexual” (Zepps). Moore jumps back in, detailing the differences in representation based on the couple’s sexual orientation, mentioning that sitcoms featuring heterosexual couples shows them being affectionate towards each other that just does not happen for gay couples (Zepps).
Historically, the beginnings of desexualization occurred in the wake of the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Prior to the outbreak, the sexual liberation movement proved to be an anti-assimilationist, unapologetic push for queer sexual freedom and expression. However, when the epidemic ravaged queer communities, the process of desexualization of the gay man began. According to M.V. Lee Badgett’s book, Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men, as government officials forced bathhouses to close, they limited the sexual freedom that gay men fought for (Badgett 113). This desexualization of the queer sexual economy may be one root for the desexualization of queer sex in the media today.
However, more mainstream productions are slowly beginning to portray gay men as sexual people, not just as comedic punchlines or committing queerbaiting. How to Get Away with Murder made a splash in its pilot by opening with a not so subtle gay sex scene featuring one of the central characters, Connor. In an interview with EOnline’s Kirstin Dos Santos, creator of Murder, Peter Norwalk, shared his vision for the character of Connor:
I knew I wanted to push the envelope, especially with the gay sex…And to me, writing the gay characterization and writing some real gay sex into a network show is to right the wrong of all of the straight sex that you see on TV. Because I didn’t see that growing up, and I feel like the more people get used to two men kissing, the less weird it will be for people. I just feel like it’s a lack of vision that you don’t see it on TV. (Dos Santos)
LGBTQ representation in the media at large has miles and miles to go. Change is slowly occurring but only when LGBTQ people are in the room and at the writer’s table, creating whole, unapologetically queer characters that challenge the current dominant mainstream narratives. Allowing queer male couples to be explicitly sexual, complex, and sometimes messy begins the broadening of this representation of queer people at large.
Next time on desexy, Thomas+ shares his experiences of desexualization as a “feminine gay man.”
Badgett, M.V. Lee. Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Ebook.
Dos Santos, Kristin. “Why There Will Be Plenty of Gay Sex on How to Get Away with Murder.” EOnline. NBCUniversal, 2014. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.
Zepps, Josh. “Gay Men Sound Off on the ‘Desexualized’ Gay Couple in ‘Modern Family.'” HuffPost Live. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 2014. Web. 3 Jan. 2015.