50 Years of Gays in the Media & in the Streets: The 1990’s

June 25, 2014 in inQueery

90s2(Trigger Warning: Description of a gay-bashing.)
When unchangeable facets of one’s personality come under attack, these bits and pieces of us become magnified in a way to protect and reclaim our identities. This idea was the basis for Amin Maalouf’s In The Name of Identity: Violence and The Need to Belong, and it does well to serve as a potential way to frame the narrative of LBGTQ citizens and the way they lived in the 1990’s. The 90’s were a decade shaped by numerous attempts to ratify discrimination against LBGTQ community members, but also helped to see advances in other areas of the spectrum such as HIV/AIDS support. Suffering an image crisis after a decade of finger pointing with the HIV/AIDS crisis, much work was done to rehabilitate a community that had seemingly lost many battles with the American public and battled discrimination on a more institutionalized level. Despite this, support emerged from Hollywood as more LBGTQ movies and T.V. shows offered those outside of the community with rare insights into the life of those within it.

After a rough decade in the 80’s, the LBGT community saw a number of small advancements in public policy. One of those advancements was promised by a new Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. One of Clinton’s campaign promises was to end the ban on gays in the military, which only partly came to fruition when he won the election. In trying to fulfill his campaign promise, Clinton drafted a compromise of sorts. This compromise became known as the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy which forbade those who applied to the military from being asked about their sexual orientation. If an applicant’s sexual orientation became somehow became public knowledge, it could still be used against them to produce an honorable discharge.

While the LBGT community struggled for rights, another fight against HIV discrimination was also being waged. The same year ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was enacted, the movie “Philadelphia” was released. “Philadelphia” was based on a true story of Andrew Beckett, a man who was fired from a law firm upon his superiors discovering his positive HIV status and sexual orientation. The film starred Tom Hanks in the now main role and sparked a dialogue about the stigma attached to both positive HIV statuses and sexual orientation. Beyond Philadelphia, big changes were on the way for LBGT citizens everywhere, though first, discrimination was further written into American legislation.

Furthering the clarification of rights LBGT citizens were to be denied, the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996. The Defense of Marriage Act effectively enacted a federal ban on same-sex marriages by clarifying marriage as an institution between people of the opposite sex, barring those of the same sex equal protections and privileges enjoyed by those who could be legally wed. By enacting a federal ban on gay marriage, the United States sought to permanently ban the very notion of gay marriage, yet DOMA only served to energize LBGT community members and their allies.

A year later, another gay-themed film was released, this time to a much larger audience and with another major actor.

The year of 97′ saw the release of In & Out, a movie with Kevin Kline in the lead role as a teacher who is outed by a former high school student turned actor. The movie explored themes of discrimination in the LBGT community, but was primarily a comedy of errors. When Kline’s character Howard fights against accusations that he’s gay, he goes on a journey to repair his image by reaffirming his heterosexuality, only to realize that he is indeed gay. The movie included a touching show of support from Howard’s students when Howard is fired from his teaching job for admitting he’s gay. This was a rare message of public support from Hollywood that also reached out to allies of the LBGT community whose voices had either been non-existent or muted by the overwhelming majority that opposed them. Still, the attention of the American majority couldn’t be captured by a movie as much as it could by real life events. Unfortunately, tragedy was on the way for one gay man that made matters of hate and discrimination come to light in a way that no one had anticipated.

On October 7th, 1998, Matthew Shepard was tied up to a fence post, severely beaten by two men, and left for dead. Eighteen hours later, Shepard was reported to be found by a cyclist, and was then taken to the hospital where he lay comatose and died days later. The crime was widely believed to have stemmed from homophobia towards Shepard’s sexual orientation, and was even included as a primary argument for the defense team for Shepard’s murderers. That a homophobic panic could be used as a reasonable defense was largely due to the fact that there were no laws identifying special protections regarding hate crimes. The two men were both sentenced to two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole, and the incident set the stage for further protest. Though even shortly before the Shepard incident, Americans everywhere began to tune-in to one network television show that dared portray not one, but two gay leads.

When Will and Grace began its run in 1998, it broke new ground for network television. While T.V. shows in the past tackled LBGT issues, gay characters were seldom mainstays in American homes. The show became a rare success in the sitcom world, and went on to last eight full seasons before taking its bow in 2006. The premise for the show revolved around Will, his friend Jack, Grace, and Grace’s assistant Karen as they tried to navigate their relationships day-to-day. The show was one of the few on air to treat LBGT people as more than stereotypes and had a comedic take on life that didn’t rely on reaffirming heteronormative expectations.

While the 90’s saw a huge increase in support from Hollywood of LBGT people, there were numerous setbacks in legislation that permeated the military, marriage, and attitudes against the community. As the decade progressed, public acceptance of gay and lesbian people became more prevalent, and as such, the stage was set for activists to begin work in the 2000’s in both Hollywood and the home.

To be concluded…in the 2000’s! (For the previous decades: 1960’s | 1970’s | 1980’s)

J.J. Medina is a contributor at InQueery.
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