Timed to coincide with the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, only to be given an extra little P.R. boost by the Supreme Court, The Out List follows the same template the director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders established in his previous HBO specials, The Black List and The Latino List. A series of folks—some of them pretty famous, others at least worthy of a three-page spread in the back of People—take turns addressing the camera, talking about the one thing they all have in common and how that has affected their lives. (The off-screen, unheard interviewer is Sam McConnell.) In the previous documentaries, the “one thing” was race; this time, it’s sexual orientation, not that it makes a huge difference. The talk isn’t consistently fascinating, but it’s always interesting, and it’s often entertaining. The talking heads have been carefully selected to form a cross-section of different attitudes about being gay and approaches to presenting that aspect of one’s self to the world, but though some of the interview subjects talk about what makes them angry, nobody comes across as a firebrand. Something about Greenfield-Sanders’ camera brings out the pussycat even in Larry Kramer, a man who survived the ‘80s plague of AIDS and, as he notes here, has outlived most of his friends, probably because Death once saw him on a talk show and figures he doesn’t need the aggravation.
Just to be on the safe side, The Out List opens with the testimony of the most ingratiating man in the world, Neil Patrick Harris. “I never felt sexually comfortable in my own skin,” Harris recalls, “and that, I think, was exacerbated by the fact that I was not only recognizable, but had this very strange nickname. So it made me less of a raconteur, to be called Doogie, than to be acne-ridden at the Standard.” Many people have expressed surprise at how quickly gay marriage has gone from the status of a boogeyman that George W. Bush could pull out and shake at the cameras during the 2004 presidential election to that of a political inevitability. Harris is onto something when he says that “the gay visibility is so prevalent” now, because “General, normal, mainstream middle America, that doesn’t get out a lot and witness much diversity,” gets it through television.
Until very recently, even on television, it was a “two steps forward, one step back” process. When Soap premiered in 1977—the same year that Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—Billy Crystal played a character who was identified as gay and planning to have a sex-change operation. Within a few episodes, he had attempted suicide and was on his way to having an affair with a woman and fathering a child. Fifteen years later, Doug Savant’s status as the token gay character on Melrose Place automatically translated into him playing the only young, attractive person on the show who wasn’t getting any. Around the time that Savant was finally being written out of the show, Ellen DeGeneres was deciding that she wasn’t comfortable on her own sitcom, doing storylines about her eternal search for Mr. Right.
In The Out List, DeGeneres talks eloquently about the way that success in the public eye can endanger a person’s identity: “As my career progressed and I was on television, then, certainly I couldn’t come out, because you have these people all around you. They’re making money off you. And as long as, you know, they know, ‘I’m not really closeted, I’m out, I’m just not out to the world, and it’s nobody’s business.’ And you can justify it that way, but you’re still a slave to it.” When DeGeneres came out herself, while preparing for he character to come out, “I was celebrated for a while, it was a big deal, and then it became a horrible deal.” Brilliantly promoted and turned into a pop culture event, the TV Ellen’s coming-out party was a ratings triumph, but when the smoke had cleared and the show had to get back to the business of turning out new episodes on a weekly basis, not enough people wanted to stick around to actually watch the character date a woman and lose her job when her boss turned out to be homophobic. DeGeneres found that she couldn’t just be herself on TV without some people thinking she was trying to pick a fight. Another stand-up, Wanda Sykes, complains about people who come up to her after a show and ask why she doesn’t make a bold, overt statement about being gay: “Jackass, I did a whole fuckin’ hour about my wife and kids. You can’t get any gayer than that.”
Not everyone in this hour is eager to get married and achieve legally certified domestic bliss. Jake Shears expresses mixed feelings about how “the gay culture is normalizing.” He’d still like to be able to gross certain people out just by existing, or else what’s the point of being a rock star? New York politician Christine Quinn has dealt with the kind of people Shears would like to inflict coronaries on and professes herself baffled by “such hideous and mean anti-gay rhetoric. It’s just not nice, and I don’t understand why you would want to be on the international stage, behaving in a way that your mother would have told you isn’t nice. Your mother told you not to pick on people.”
Maybe the reason that gay rights have picked up so much steam in the last eight or nine years, as anti-gay politicians and activists have gotten so much uglier and more bellicose, is that the prevalent gay visibility in popular culture, which has made it easier for people to come out in real life, makes it that much harder for people who wouldn’t once have wanted to be associated with the issue to stomach the ugliness; you just have to be really, really sheltered now not to know about some gay person you care about, whether it’s your favorite bachelor uncle or that nice Ellen on the daytime TV, who warmed the heart of many a grandmother by finally finding the woman she wanted to settle down with.
- Other interviewees here include the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez, Wade Davis, Log Cabin Republican R. Clarke Cooper, Lady Bunny, Wazina Zondon, Twiggy Pucci Garcon, Janet Mock, Suze Orman, and Cynthia Nixon. Nixon steps up to hold the banner for people who are too fluid sexually to really feel comfortable with any label, but will accept being called “gay” if it will make the rest of us happy: “I try to avoid the bisexual label, because it just brings so much grief down on you. People think you’re lying. Or you’re wishy-washy.”
- Autobiographical tidbit: In keeping with the theme of television's usefulness as a tool to educate and enlighten, I first found out about homosexuality thanks to TV. It was late at night, way more years ago than I care to think about; I was in bed, and my mother was watching some panel discussion show, hosted by Geraldo Rivera. And though I couldn’t hear the words well enough to tell what the people were talking about, I could sense that they were upset, agitated, and more than a little freaked-out. I couldn’t sleep from wondering what they could be discussing, so I finally called out to my mother to ask her, and she, probably wanting to shut me up so she could return to her program, just said, “There are some men who like other men the same way most men like women.” Whereupon I processed that, shrugged, and went to sleep. I guess it would be a more dramatic story if this news had caused consternation in my heart and kept me awake, haunted by confusion and dark thoughts, but the truth is, I was just so relieved to find out that they hadn’t been talking about new evidence of the actual existence of werewolves or something.