by: Kevin Sparrow
The summer of 1993 changed my life… and probably made me gay[i]. 1993 was the year my family got cable television, exclusively for Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon to my childish conception. That summer was awash with Scooby Doo, The Snorks, Josie and the Pussycats–my brother and I even attempted to stay up for 24 hours to watch every show they aired (I think “Late Night Black and White” is what finally put me down). But cable TV didn’t just feed me a steady diet of cartoons and Stick Stickly; it introduced me to MTV, VH1 and E!–and more gay folks than ever before. Even before Ellen came out in 1997, I could see Pedro Zamora or Norm Korpi on The Real World, Isaac Mizrahi on E!; queer folks on the regular, and not just during the Oscar Red Carpet.
When I entered teenagehood, MTV started airing Canadian export Undressed and VH1 moved to making all their programming talking heads responding to pop culture clips, leading to heavy rotation of their Totally Gay specials, where I got to finally see actual clips from Queer as Folk; up until that point, I only got scrambled signals from Showtime. Side note: this is also related to why I kept myself locked in my bedroom for the early part of the 2000s.
I became invested in cable series that initially held appeal for me based on their homoerotic content, but that I eventually enjoyed for their other merits. From FX’s The Shield and Nip/Tuck–which I hated, but all the butts!–to MTV’s Spyder Games (please, tell me somebody remembers this show–the wonderful but too-short-lived, deconstructionist soap opera about a video game mogul’s family), I led a double TV-viewing life; sorry, network TV! And basic cable came equipped with Encore at that time, so I had my first tastes of queer cinema by being able to watch The Birdcage, Mulholland Dr., and Cruising[ii] unedited.
So, yes, this much TV consumption sounds super unhealthy, and probably was. But I believe it also helped me understand a world where (particular) queer people could express themselves, have relationships or sleep with their sister’s boyfriend. I was able to use the filter of cable to start claiming my own identity as opposed to the limits of network television, where you had very programmed depictions of queerness; with cable, you could find gay every day. For a kid living in a world of hushed tones regarding sexuality, seeing people engaging in their lives in both real and fantastical ways provided models on how to engage with my own sexual expression. Positive portrayals of LGBT people–especially bisexual and transgender people–are still rare enough in today’s cultural landscape, so the scarcity of such portrayals ten years ago still resonates.
We also get reminders that work still needs to be done. In 2002, Nick News ran a special on gay parenting, a controversial move that made news all its own with conservative family values groups petitioning to keep the special from airing, devolving the matter into a whirlwind of us vs. them rhetoric for what was a fairly benign issue. But one TV special and Modern Family don’t change everything; we still have Bristol Palin waxing asinine about how Glee is corrupting thinking on traditional marriage. TV can be a very direct way to reach people, but it effects change slowly.
Cable television now has even more significant depictions of LGBTQ people, but I watch far less of it. It was a great tool for growing up queer, and the current generation of queer teenagers have even more options with their Comcasts and Dish Networks, but I’ve been able to leave it behind while creating my own media and operating as a queer person in real life.
[i] There is documented evidence that I was quite gay before 1993; oh, hyperbole!
[ii] Cable TV also taught me about fisting.
Kevin Sparrow is a Chicago writer who is interested in Queerness is both a favorite subject and pastime. His education in movies-writing has proved that he is adept at powering up computers and elementary keyboard use. Sparrow’s short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in that order in Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and LIES/ISLE, as well as on the website Be Yr Own Queero.