This past month, Vice President Joe Biden was quoted as saying: “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far. And I think- people fear that which is different. Now they're beginning to understand.”
While the second-in-command to our nation has been quoted with some pretty nonsensical or impulsive comments throughout the years (remember when he called Barack Obama “articulate” and “clean”?), I can’t help but agree with him wholeheartedly.
I’ve always been a firm believer that exposure leads to knowledge and that knowledge leads to acceptance. And whether we like it or not, the one medium that exposes others to difference, that a majority of America also has access to, is television.
As a child of the 1980s (and the product of two working parents), the television often served as my babysitter. Who needed a nanny when you had Saturday morning cartoons like the Muppet Babies, G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Care Bears? Furthermore, as the child of two new immigrants into the U.S., the television opened the doors to all of the knowledge I needed to survive in an American world, including how to be the cool kid in high school (i.e., by channeling Mike Seaver in Growing Pains) and how to communicate with one’s parents (i.e., by mimicking the Tanners on Full House).
My TV exposed me to people I had never seen before. Growing up, 99.9% of the people that I interacted with before my first day of preschool were Filipino or Filipino American. Television first introduced me to cultural groups outside of my home, including African Americans who were upper middle class (e.g., The Cosby Show); African Americans who were working poor (e.g., Good Times); and the spectrum of White people of various social classes (e.g., through almost every other show that was on during that time). So when I finally did meet people who weren’t like me, I at least had a basic understanding of what their lives might be like. Obviously, sometimes television may have painted inaccurate stereotypes of these groups, but at least I wasn’t afraid.
On the contrary, because many of my Black and White peers never saw any Asian Americans on their television screens, they always seemed a little surprised and shocked the first time they ever came to my Filipino household. For example, my friends never understood why we ate rice with every meal, regardless of whether we were eating steak, KFC, hot dogs, or egg omelets. Perhaps if a Filipino American family was on the TGIF lineup on ABC, maybe between Family Matters and Perfect Strangers, my friends would have been better prepared.
Television taught me about social issues, including child abuse (e.g., the very special episode with Dudley and the bike shop owner on Diff’rent Strokes), drug addiction (e.g., the very special episode with Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties), and injustice (e.g., the time that Marcia Brady almost lost the election for Most Popular Girl at school). So while I may have eventually learned about these issues later through my psychology or ethnic study classes in high school or college, I got my first taste of the world’s problems through our 500-pound wood-paneled television.
Finally, television made it easier for me to be who I am. When I was in high school, I didn’t watch the Ellen episode when Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet, but I do remember thinking it was “good for her” (even though I didn’t want to admit that it might be “good for me” too). In college, when I started to watch Will and Grace and Queer as Folk, I started to see similarities between my closeted life and their fictional lives, which helped to validate that maybe others had experiences that were like mine. And in 2003, when Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out and Bravo unofficially became the gayest network on the planet, I witnessed how people in my family became obsessed with the Fab Five. I saw how accepting my family could be, which eventually resulted in me becoming way more comfortable with myself. I began to flaunt my fabulousness as well.
For LGBT kids today, I imagine that it may be a little bit easier to come out of the closet because of the many images they see of LGBT people on television. Glee, alone, has done much to represent the diversity of the acronym that defines our community. I’ve smiled each time that newly out lesbian Santana shared sweet kisses with her bisexual girlfriend, Brittany. I’ve cried pretty much any time Mr. Hummel has said anything to his gay son, Kurt, while I’ve also appreciated how Santana’s disapproving abuela (grandmother) accurately depicted the difficulty that LGBT people of color have when coming out to their families. Perhaps I was most proud of Ryan Murphy when he introduced the first transgender/ gender nonconforming character to McKinley High, through a young African American teenager named Unique. Through these characters, young children who are LGBT can see that there are many ways to be and exist, and that LGBT people can be of all races, genders, body types, and character types.
At the same time, through television, heterosexual people gain massive exposure to LGBT people – allowing them to relate, empathize, and view a group that was once foreign as human. I love when heterosexual couples realize that the bickering between Cameron and Mitchell on Modern Family pretty much parallels the bickering between opposite sex couples in real life. I chuckle when my heterosexual friends tell me that they follow RuPaul’s Drag Race, particularly when they can name their favorites. (In case you’re wondering, Manila Luzon, Ongina, and Jiggly Caliente have always been on the top of my list for biased reasons). Perhaps now they aren’t as afraid of drag queens or gender nonconforming people and will know to treat one as a human being if they met one in real life.
Perhaps, if we want to convince people that LGBT people are not evil or contagious or child molesters, we just need to increase the number of LGBT people on television. However, while the numbers are seemingly increasing, they are still pretty scarce. In 2011, The Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Anti Defamation (GLAAD) found 28 regular LGBT characters on “mainstream television” (i.e., programming on the major networks, which did not include channels like Logo, whose mission is to represent the LGBT community). This number was down from 35 characters in the prior year's study and represented less than 1% of the number of characters in total. If some estimates find that 1 out of every 6 to 10 people is LGBT (anywhere from 10-17%), then this number needs to increase exponentially in order for true diversity to be represented.
So, hey Ryan Murphy! If you need a gay Filipino American to make a cameo on Glee (perhaps as a teacher or Blaine’s cool, gay uncle), you know where to find me.