Today, we see more lesbian and gay people, and occasionally bisexual and transgender characters on television, in films, fiction and nonfiction written materials, magazines, commercials, and ads.
From the pages of slick magazines, Melissa Etheridge and her (now former) partner, sporting broad smiles and holding hands, display chic Cartier bracelets on their wrists; a male couple with a young girl and a yellow Labrador Retriever smile as they are all seated on the floor beside their Ikea couch, a lesbian couple learning American Sign Language in advance of their adoption of a young deaf girl in an ad for Wells Fargo Bank, and there’s Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series.
Then there are shows like “Glee,” “Modern Family,” “Will and Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Ugly Betty,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Project Runway,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Looking,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How To Get Away with Murder,” “Scandal,” “Shameless,” “Empire,” “The Fosters,” “Transparent,” and movies like Brokeback Mountain, The Kids are Alright, The Single Man, The Imitation Game. These represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of recent examples of media visibility.
These characterizations, though on occasion representing minoritized races and ethnicities, comprise largely white and middle- to upper-class people. While the majority today would be considered by many as “positive” representations for the most part, which may more fully and accurately represent some of our lives relative to the rather sad and miserable or violently threatening characterizations presented previously, the majority depict the upwardly mobile, socially assimilated character who poses little overt challenge to the status quo, those who function rather successfully in the competitive corporate world, those who shop for a dishwasher or go on an expensive vacation with their heterosexual friends and relatives.
While many benefits accrue with these representations, such as providing better role models for our youth, helping to overcome many of the stereotypes and reducing prejudices, the capitalist system seems to have employed these images of “we are just like you” in its attempts to coopt critique and possible challenge to that very system.
A few years back, I entered my university classroom and was about to introduce that day’s lesson when a large poster pinned to the bulletin board caught my eye. It displayed a tightly clenched raised fist, reminiscent of the iconic Black Power symbol popularized in the 1960s. Above the image read the words in large capital letters, “JOIN THE FIGHT.”
Encouraged by the sight, I walked over to the poster hoping to find some indication of resurgent social activism. To my dismay and utter aversion, however, appearing in smaller letters, the poster advertised “The Fighting Burrito,” a local fast food campus hangout. The profit motive transformed this iconic symbol into a sales pitch for burritos, tacos, carbonated drinks, and nachos.
In our communities, the “pride” marches of the past have morphed into parades and festivals funded on major corporate sponsorship and capitalist consumption. Parade contingents now include large canvas banners affixed with familiar logos of national and local banks, insurance companies, soft drinks and beer, and real estate offices. Ironically, some of these same companies not so long ago refused to hire “out” members of our communities, but seeing how our business will improve their economic bottom line, we are now happily welcomed.
Along the parade routes and at rally sites, companies and individuals display and sell their wares, from internet and phone company subscriptions to rainbow-colored everything imaginable: from t-shirts to teething rings, and from towels to toilet seat covers. Gucci just introduced their new rainbow pride-theme sneakers for the bargain price of only $995.
In addition, merchants and artisans borrow the pink triangle — the Nazi patch gay men were forced to wear on their clothing when incarcerated in concentration camps — to fashion glimmering pink Rhinestone jewelry worn as glamorous fashion accessories.
Originally, the pink triangle, this symbol of ultimate oppression of gay men in Nazi concentration camps, in the 1970s our communities deployed as a mark of solidarity, in the AIDS activist movement of the 1980s and 1990s, as an emblem of resistance in mobilizing against the intransigence of governmental and societal inaction, and today often as simply as accoutrements of vanity as a fashion statement.
The latter is an example of what I refer to as “the tchotchetization of a movement” (“tchotchke” in Yiddish means knick knacks, small objects, etc.).