By Tom Robotham 

You can’t be what you can’t see. ~ Marian Wright Edelman

Every so often I see something on television that serves as a stark reminder of how much American society has changed for the better in my lifetime. A case in point: The other night I was watching CNN’s coverage of the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Before the event there was a “red-carpet” segment, much like the one preceding the Oscars. Don Lemon, the reporter on the scene, was clad in black-tie and chatting with various people as they arrived. Then, at one point, he motioned to a man behind him, turned back to the camera to address the studio anchor and said, “I’d like you to meet my boyfriend.” 

Lemon has been out of the closet since 2011, so it wasn’t a surprise that he had a boyfriend. What struck me about the moment was the casualness with which he made the introduction. Something that would have shocked much of the viewing audience a few decades ago now seemed utterly normal.

When I shared this observation in a post on Facebook, several people—all straight men—posted comments dismissing my suggestion that it was significant. 

“Why would it matter who any news anchor dates?,” one of the men wrote. “I mean, I don’t think it should be shunned but I don’t think it should be celebrated either.”

I beg to differ. The ways in which the media portray—or fail to portray—various groups in our society matters a great deal.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t so long ago that the LGBT community had no representation in the mainstream media. In the late ‘70s there were a few exceptions—notably Billy Crystal’s character on Soap. But change came slowly and was met with strong resistance. In 1991, for example, when an episode of L.A. Law showed two women kissing, a number of advertisers threatened to boycott the show. 

By the late ‘90s, when Ellen DeGeneres came out, and Will & Grace debuted, the resistance had begun to weaken somewhat. Those two developments were significant—but they were fairly easy for our heteronormative society to tolerate. Will & Grace, in particular, depicted the two gay characters as comic novelties. Straight viewers could laugh at them while continuing to marginalize the gay community in real life. The same was true of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which premiered in 2003. 

Lemon did not come out publicly until 2011—and even at that late date he knew there were risks. 

“I’m scared,” he told The New York Times. “I’m talking about something that people might shun me for, ostracize me for.” He added that coming out of the closet was especially risky for a black man. “It’s quite different for an African-American male,” he said. “It’s about the worst thing you can be in black culture. You’re taught you have to be a man; you have to be masculine.”

Well, good for him, you might say. But why does it matter to you? 

Perhaps it doesn’t. But it matters to society as a whole. And it matters, especially, to today’s gay adolescents and young men. For generations, after all, young gay men and lesbians had no public role models whatsoever, in so far as their sexual orientation was concerned. As a result of that void, many of these young people felt isolated and pressured to be “normal”—as defined by mass media.  

This is true of all kinds of people. Several years ago, for example, I wrote an essay in this magazine about my struggles with depression. A few days after the magazine hit the streets, an acquaintance came up to me at a local pub and said, “Thank you for that—I thought I was the only one who felt that way.” 

The same is true, as well, for women. While they’ve never been absent from the mass media, they continue to be represented in a distorted way—primarily as sex objects and rarely as leads that defy feminine stereotypes. Sure there are exceptions. But as the documentary Miss Representation points out, only 16 percent of protagonists in Hollywood films are female. And once women are “old” or “overweight” the likelihood of landing such roles drops even more precipitously. 

We could say the same thing about African-Americans, of course, who had virtually no presence on television or film until the 1970s—and for decades thereafter only in limited ways. 

Martha Lauzen, director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, put it succinctly during an interview in Miss Representation: “When a group is not featured in the media,” she said, “it is symbolic annihilation.” 

I’ll admit that as a straight white man I never gave any of this much thought until I was well into middle age and had begun writing and teaching about mass media. After all, why would I have even noticed, since most of the characters on television looked like me, or the man I might become? The mass media’s depiction of white, heterosexual men is problematic in itself, of course, since it often sends boys the message that they’d better be strong and free of emotion (except for anger, when called for). But at least there were characters I could relate to. 

It doesn’t require much reflection to see why this is important. Our lives are dominated by mass media imagery, and what we see on television, in film and in advertising has a powerful effect on our unconscious minds. Collectively, these images tell us that this is what is “normal” and these are the ideals to which we should aspire. 

Likewise, it doesn’t require a great leap of the imagination to consider what it might be like to be a young gay man, trying to decide whether to come out of the closet, and seeing Don Lemon—a successful man by any definition—casually introduce his boyfriend on national television. It says to that young man, not only are you not alone, your feelings are as normal as those of your straight friends. Moreover, it says to straight people that homosexuality is just another variety of the human condition. 

Alas, we still have a long way to go. While I don’t often encounter expressions of overt hostility toward gays and lesbians anymore, I still hear far too often the remark, “I don’t care what they do in their private lives; I just don’t want their lifestyles shoved in my face.” As I remarked in an essay in the space a while back, this is a reflection of blindness to the double standard behind that attitude. After all, if a female reporter on the red carpet were to introduce her husband or boyfriend, no straight person would think twice about it. When Don Lemon did it, the reaction in some quarters was, Why is he making such a big deal of it?! 

The fact is, he wasn’t making a big deal of it. He was just doing what people do on a regular basis—in everyday life and in the mass media. That, however, is why it was a big deal. It signaled the fact that we may be rapidly approaching a time when such moments can occur and the only reaction will be, “What a nice looking couple.” 

Until then, I think we could all do a better job, myself included, of imagining what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes—and why their comfort level in sharing details of their lives matters to all of us.