Alysia Abbot has a fascinating critique of the rise of gay fathers on television in The Atlantic today, pointing out that the most interesting gay father in media this fall isn’t a sitcom character, but an activist in a documentary:
The most vibrant gay man you’ll see on a screen this fall won’t be found on TV but in David France’s filmed history of the ACT UP movement, How to Survive a Plague. Bob Rafsky quit his job as a PR executive at Howard Rubenstein (he’d represented Donald Trump before going on disability for AIDS) in order to become an activist. In a New York Times op-ed he wrote, “There’s not much to do except to keep fighting the epidemic, and those whose actions or inactions prolong it, until I get too sick to fight.”…Rafsky was also a dad. Among the most affecting scenes in an already affecting movie are those between him and his young daughter, Sara. We see them celebrating birthdays and dancing together in his sunny New York apartment. Rafsky’s face beaming, he tells us in voiceover: “It’s the only really successful love affair of my life.” This love is made more poignant as we see him deteriorate over the course of the film.
Rafsky’s best known for a moment in the spring of 1992, when he heckled candidate Bill Clinton at a campaign rally in New York City,”What are you going to do about AIDS?” Clinton responded, “I feel your pain.” The televised exchange led to AIDS becoming an issue in the ’92 election. During the Clinton administration, protease inhibitors were developed, transforming AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable disease. These advances couldn’t save Rafsky, who died of AIDS in 1993, but his story illustrates the legacy of political activism, a legacy to be proud of. At the time of his death at age 47, he was writing an autobiography about his work as an AIDS activist tentatively titled A Letter to Sara.
The gay fathers on TV today can make us laugh, but can they inspire? If they can’t inspire can they at least not embody embarrassing stereotypes? Thinking about the latest crop of gay dads on television I can’t help but recall a popular chant from the Act Up demonstrations whenever someone was arrested or harassed: “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” The irony is that, too often, the world wasn’t watching then. But now, thanks to these primetime characters, people are definitely watching. They just aren’t seeing much of the truth.
Or maybe to put it another way, we aren’t seeing much of gay parents other than their gayness. It makes sense that stories about gay couples who are starting families would involve characters who are confronting their expectations for what their sexual orientation meant for what they could and couldn’t do in their lives. That’s an important conversation, but it is a limitation on storytelling, and on building out other facets of these characters. It’s one of the reasons I like Julie White’s character on Go On so much. In addition to the fact that she’s one of the only lesbian moms on network television, her character already had children with her wife, so that conversation is over and done with. Instead, we get to see her anxieties about dating and sex as a widow, her crankiness, or even be surprised by the fact that she turns out to be a lovely, accomplished dancer. We need stories about gay people reckoning with their own gayness. But equality means that not all stories about gay people should have to be about their gayness, just as straight people get to blow things up, and have wacky roommates, and go to terrible bachelor parties, and wear latex without implications for their sexual orientations.