Did 'Will and Grace' Win the Gay Rights Wars?

Joe Biden and Rick Santorum are in agreement: Will and Grace won the Queer Wars. Wasn’t Stonewall. Wasn’t Harvey Milk. Wasn’t Matthew Shepherd or Act UP. Wasn’t a thousand pride marches and boycotts and electoral campaigns. Wasn’t people’s sons and daughters and best friends coming out to them.

It was Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes and Deborah Messing and the guy who played Will, whose name no one — including me — can remember. Eight fun-filled seasons of hijinks on NBC, eight fun-filled years of laughter and celebrity cameos and Sean Hayes’ gay-minstrel act as a foil to “Will’s” non-lisping, straight-hipped, WASPish, upper-middle income gay poster-boy, and — WHAM — gay weddings on the Hudson and the Potomac and the Olympic Peninsula.

Other civil rights movements win their battles in the streets. We won ours on the television set. 

Hence, Santorum: “Attitudes on marriage basically stayed the same for 30 years after the sexual revolution… It didn’t change until one program on television … and that was Will and Grace." 

And Biden: “I think Will and Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far.”

But did it?

The natural inclination is to categorically say "no."

As a cultural artifact, Will and Grace is problematic. Its main characters are based on stereotypes: the effeminate gay man; the rich, urban gay man; the clingy, straight girl best-friend. It reinforces common images of gay men as image-obsessed, trivial, rich, white, and urban. It does not reflect the reality of LGBT life in America, in the same way that The Cosby Show didn’t reflect the reality of black family life, or that Girls doesn’t portray a believable image of “millennial” womanhood.

In the age of queer theory and semi-broad-minded, continuum LGBTQIA-ness, it doesn’t stand up to criticism, in the same way that Modern Family or The New Normal or any of the other stultifyingly flat and stereotypical depictions of LGBT people on TV don’t. It’s not the sort of thing to which you want to attribute progress. 

Nevertheless, begrudgingly, reluctantly, teeth-grittingly, you may have to. At least to a certain extent. 

That’s what a 2006 study out of the University of Minnesota found. The researchers, who polled 245 students, found a significant correlation between viewing Will and Grace and positive views of gay men, suggesting that “positive contact can create a sense of dissonance that can lead to an attitude change” and that people who have “pleasant interactions with a homosexual tend to generalize from that.”

In other words, having “pleasant interactions with a homosexual” (coincidentally, the title of my soon-to-be-released autobiography) may make straight folks think all gay people are just as pleasant as the one gay person they know. And that, apparently, also goes for highly stereotypical gay fictional characters that they know from TV.

So, time to throw that dead-beat Harvey Milk out of the Gay Pantheon and put the NBC peacock in his place?

Not exactly.

We know that “mainstream” attitudes on gay marriage and homosexuality changed during the time that “Will and Grace” was on the air, from 1998 to 2006. Pew shows a slight decline in opposition to gay marriage from 2001-2006. Nate Silver has a more substantial increase over that time of around 10 percentage points.

The problem is that those polls show support for gay marriage rising prior to the show’s run and after the show left the air, with the largest rise happening in the last five years. Polling data on more general attitudes toward homosexuality equally show the largest increases in positive viewpoints happening in the last several years, long after 2006.

Makes you almost think that getting to know actual, real gay people in actual, real marriages might have influenced a change in public opinion among middle America more than getting to know two fictional rich gay dudes and their rich straight girlfriends. Which is actually what the polling data shows. Turns out knowing the LGBT people in your family and community makes you less prone to damn them to hell and deny them the right to marry.

So, the vice president and Sen. Buttfroth aside, Will and Grace did not singlehandedly lead LGBT gay folks to the Promised Land. That Promised Land — as this week's cowardly jettisoning of gay and lesbian couples from the Senate’s immigration reform effort demonstrated — has yet to be reached.

But when it is reached, it will be because of a multi-generational effort, comprising public figures and private individuals, cultural and political efforts, grand gestures and every day, mundane interactions.

All of those things — including Will and Grace, warts and all — were instrumental pieces of an overall, comprehensive, meticulously prepared “homosexual agenda,” pictured here: