NBC’s new sitcom The New Normal breaks new ground this week as the first mainstream show starring same-sex parents--two gay dads. ABC’s Modern Family, which features two gay fathers in its ensemble cast, won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series last year. Yet these shows, for all the tremendous good they are doing to raise the visibility of lesbian and gay parents and our children, follow a tradition of mainstream depictions of LGBT parents as upper middle class and White. When we will see LGBT parents of color, or LGBT families in lower income brackets?
Most of the best known regular or semi-regular gay and lesbian parents on television are White and at least reasonably well off. They include: Melanie and Lindsay of Showtime’s Queer as Folk, Michael and Ben of the same, Carol and Susan of Friends, Leslie and Maureen of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, Abby and Kathy of ABC’s NYPD Blue, Laurie of Ellen (the 90’s ABC sitcom), Fran and Kal of the HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk II, Janine and Sandy of the Lifetime movie What Makes a Family, and Nora and Anne of ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, as well as Cam and Mitchell of Modern Family and Bryan and David of The New Normal.
The new lesbian mom on TV this fall, Anne of NBC’s Go On, is dealing with the death of her partner—a fresh and worthy plotline. But she, too, adds no color to our palette.
We have seen just a few lesbian and gay parents who are people of color or multiracial. They, too, are always solidly middle class—and always one half of a couple with a White person: Sandy and Kerry of ER (Sandy is Latina; Kerry is White), Callie and Arizona of Grey’s Anatomy (Callie is Latina; Arizona is White), Keith and David of HBO’s Six Feet Under (Keith is Black; David is White), Bette and Tina of The L Word (Bette has a White mother and a Black father; Tina is White), and Hiram and LeRoy (Rachel’s dads) of Glee. (Hiram is White; LeRoy’s race is never specified, but actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, who plays him, is African American, German, Scottish, and Native American.)
Gay and lesbian parents in mainstream movies are also a White bunch. They include Nic and Jules of the Academy Award-nominated The Kids Are All Right (2010), Robert of The Next Best Thing (2000), Armand of The Birdcage (1996), Renato of La Cage aux Folles (1978), and Tick of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). A rare exception is Wai-Tung of The Wedding Banquet (1993), who is Taiwanese (but whose partner Simon is White).
The only fictional same-sex parents on television who are both people of color are Kima and Cheryl of HBO’s The Wire and Eddie and Chance of Noah’s Arc. Noah’s Arc did not run on a general-interest network, however. It was broadcast first on LGBT-focused network LOGO and rebroadcast one summer on BET J, a spin-off of the Black Entertainment Network.
Transgender parents in mainstream TV and film are still even rarer than gay or lesbian parents—but the most well known, Bree in Transamerica, upholds the predominantly White image.
The truth is far different. Researchers at UCLA’s Williams Institute have found that Black and Latino/a individuals in same-sex couples are roughly twice as likely to be raising children compared to White ones. (There is little data on transgender parents and single gay and lesbian parents.)
And children being raised by same-sex couples are twice as likely to live in poverty as children being raised by married, opposite-sex parents. We rarely see those aspects of our community on TV or film, however.
On a possibly promising note, though, singer and actor Jennifer Lopez is producing The Fosters, a pilot for ABC Family that features a lesbian couple with a “multi-ethnic mix” of four foster, adoptive, and biological kids. It is unknown yet what race or ethnicity the parents are. Lopez, who is Latina, will not be one of them, but perhaps her influence will mean they show some variety. Deadline has also reported that one of the mothers is a cop, and the other is a private school teacher—moderate-paying jobs that could mean it is hard for them to support their large family.
The problem, of course, is not just with depictions of LGBT parents, but of LGBT people in general. But gay and lesbian parents are a hot item right now, as witnessed by the success of The Kids Are All Right and Modern Family, and the buzz about The New Normal and The Fosters. I hope their success leads to more new shows—shows that highlight even more facets of real LGBT families.
I welcome The New Normal and know it will help people continue to see lesbian and gay parents as part of the tapestry of American life. Such representation is vitally important. But until mainstream America can see LGBT people in all our diversity—and not simply as LGBT reflections of the White, upper middle-class American ideal—we will not have made progress towards true equality for our whole community.
In fact, insofar as media images of LGBT parents continue to reinforce being White and upper middle-class as the ideal, they may be hindering progress towards the broader goal of inclusion for all people. The problem is not with any one show or film—but collectively, they create an image that is not that of our multiracial, multiethnic, economically varied America.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (www.mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.